This show stinks. That's an observation, not a judgment: Wire bags the size of potato sacks stuffed with garlic bulbs preside over the District of Columbia Art Center's smart, if smelly, new exhibit, "Superstition." Credit the fragrance to Wilfredo Valladares, whose hanging sculpture may ward off vampires but shouldn't prevent the rest of us from visiting this 11-person show exploring the intersection of art and voodoo.
The mind behind the show is young African American artist Jefferson Pinder, the fellow who produced some of the sharpest racially charged videos I saw in 2003 (it's been too long, Jefferson -- please exhibit again soon!). Here, Pinder picked a smart group working in multiple media -- video and installation among them -- whose art not only links contemporary culture to the magic and ritual of Africa, South America and Europe but also suggests that modern-day neuroses are incarnations of age-old impulses. Your obsessive-compulsive disorder is my tribal drum beat: repetitive, ritualistic and -- hopefully -- insurance against unnamed baddies.
A big acrylic and mixed-media canvas by Brandon Friend begins to suggest the connection. His portrait of the contents of somebody's refrigerator, titled "eggs go on the left. Bottom shelf.," is a visual ode to ritualized positioning. There are people out there -- a lot of people, most likely -- who are convinced that the coordinates of their produce are essential to warding off something, be it bad luck or mold. It may make gallerygoers look at their iceboxes a little differently.
Stephanie Dinkins's videos bring old ritual into the modern world. One piece riffs on traditional African power figures, those unfriendly, voodoo-doll-like statues riddled with rusted nails that were made by the Kongo people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; here she updates it by using contemporary materials. Dinkins drove nails into a rectangular box framing a tiny TV monitor that screens video of tribal drumming. The footage is shot in close-up, focusing on the hands' rhythmic movements. The intersection of high-end technology -- the screen is the kind you find in fancy car navigation systems -- and old-fashioned ritual links the artist to her elders.
Just as captivating is Dinkins's short video loop showing a guy in a Speedo doing a curious repetitive dance in the sand. The shot shows him from the waist down, his legs undulating while his feet stay grounded. The scene could have been shot as some guy performed a silly dance for his friends at the beach, but in the context of "Superstition," the snippet of movement looping endlessly in the gallery begins to look awfully obsessive-compulsive. The work is sweet, too, and exuberant. Most of all, it is mesmerizing. Whether this guy is accomplishing anything with his funny chicken dance becomes beside the point. Like everybody else with some pet ritual or superstition, he's going to do it anyway.
Dianna Cohen at Gore Dean
Los Angeles artist Dianna Cohen's funny, sad-sack works made from plastic grocery bags -- the flimsy totes collecting under your kitchen sink as they await their death in a landfill near you -- seem a curious choice for the inaugural exhibition in the new digs of a pricey home-furnishing emporium like Gore Dean.
You don't get much more downscale than these bags. Cohen approaches them as she would fabric, clipping and sewing sections together and mounting them behind glass or draping them on the wall like expansive patchwork quilts. Some, like the large-scale "Mariposa," are as big and imposing as classic Color School paintings. District legend Sam Gilliam's 1960s-era draped stained canvases, revolutionary at the time because they did away with wooden stretchers, come to mind.
Sometimes Cohen approaches her bags sculpturally, sewing them in the round and partly inflating them. She enjoys arranging them to look like giant, flaccid daisies. The saggy flowers bring more '60s-era art to mind -- this time the deliberately deflated soft sculptures of drum sets and hamburgers that pop-art pioneer Claes Oldenburg made. Cohen's have the same wimpy appeal, yet I can't divine any substantive theoretical underpinnings equal to that in Oldenburg's groundbreaking pieces.
You'd think that using material as socially charged as these bags -- maybe not so much to you and me, but ask an environmentalist and watch her ears curl -- would make plenty of room for commentary on consumerism, waste, something. I recognize bags from Whole Foods and Target. Others are from African stores and local markets. Together, they come off as some Asiago-cheese-eating jet-setter's travel keepsakes -- souvenirs of local color and trips to foreign, and local, convenience stores. Maybe it's the duty-free bags that set me off. Or perhaps it's this show's location, at Gore Dean, where social awareness doesn't get much traction. I just can't get around the fact that I'm looking at a bunch of grocery bags while Gore Dean shoppers cart off goods in much nicer totes than these.
Superstition at District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, Wednesday,Thursday and Sunday 2-7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2-10 p.m., 202-462-7833, to June 19.
Dianna Cohen: Of Thee I Sing at Gore Dean, 3338 M St. NW, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., 202-625-9199, to June 30.
A shot from Stephanie Dinkins's video loop of an obsessive-compulsive dancing man.
At Gore Dean, Dianna Cohen has turned plastic bags into imposing works such as "Mariposa."