PARTICIPANTS in Artomatic should by now be used to hearing one all-too-common argument against the raucous, unjuried coming together of artists and artist-wannabes that springs up every couple of years in whatever empty, and typically unpristine, building its organizers can find. (This year, the site is the old Capital Children's Museum, where the show is up through early next month.)
According to detractors of Artomatic, in which anyone with $60 and a hammer and nail can participate, the biggest problem with the show is that its free-for-all nature -- which by design allows in as much lousy art as good -- is somehow bad for Art with a capital A. At first blush, this reasoning sounds a little like the case made against same-sex marriage by proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, who feel that church- and state-sanctioned gay unions somehow threaten "traditional" ones.
Unlike gay marriages, however, which differ only from straight ones in the gender of the participants', there's a huge qualitative gap between Artomatic and, say, the Corcoran Biennial. It's not apples and oranges. It's apples and, I don't know, automobile transmissions.
Is there really any serious danger of people confusing the two?
I've now been through this year's Artomatic twice, over the course of almost eight hours, and I'm happy to report that I, along with the state of contemporary art, are doing fine. I'd even go so far as to say I enjoyed myself. Maybe having weathered three prior versions of the show has toughened my sensibilities to the extent that I -- unlike those whose "Princess and the Pea"-sensitive eyes burn at the sight of bad art -- don't mind walking past dreck. (Note: I said walking past. There's no point in lingering when you have the work of several hundred artists to evaluate, and you know in advance you're not going to like most of them.)
Unsurprisingly, though, wading through the mediocre stuff only makes stumbling across the good stuff that much more fun. Or not. If you're someone who can't separate the wheat from the chaff without a curator, critic or dealer to hold your hand, stay away from this show. It asks that you do a little work.
Here's what I found: a show that has more graffiti- and comics-inspired art than ever before. I really like that. Maybe you don't. Artists like Kelly Towles, who's scheduled to have a solo show at David Adamson Gallery before it moves to new 14th Street digs, straddle the aesthetic of the street and the white wall. At Artomatic, he's not alone, with work in the same lively, cartoonish vein by Dale Hunt, Dave Savage, Anna Nazaretz, J. Coleman, Gregory Ferrand, Jen Dixon, Michael Neeley, Kevin Irvin, Jay Rees and numerous others.
To all the rest looking for me to mention your name in this article: Sorry, it's not going to be that kind of review.
And Artomatic isn't really that kind of show anyway, is it? You didn't participate to find fame and fortune, did you? You did it for what organizers refer to as the vital "community building" aspect of the show, right? Or in order to get what will likely be the 10,000-plus pairs of eyeballs looking at work that normally sits in a studio the other 11 months of the year.
Or maybe, just maybe, you did it because, for just this once, there wasn't anyone telling you that you couldn't.
ARTOMATIC 2004 -- Through Dec. 5 at 800 Third St. NE (Metro: Union Station). www.artomatic.org. Open Fridays and Saturdays noon to 1 a.m.; Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays noon to 10; Thursdays noon to midnight (closed Thanksgiving Day). Free.
Numerous public performances, including a tribute on Saturday at 5 to the late Ana Mendieta, whose earth- and body-based work is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will take place at Artomatic. Consult the Web site for scheduling information.