WHEN JACK Rasmussen talks about the physical parameters of the new American University Museum -- a 30,000-square-foot, three-story exhibition space with a sculpture garden he runs as part of the school's multipurpose Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center and for which he has curated its inaugural show, "Soft Openings" -- he's just as apt to use the word "situation" as "gallery." That's because hanging a 22-person show in this space, or, rather, in its multiplicity of spaces, presented him with a variety of problems: long, curved walls; an open staircase that rises toward a skylight; balconies and walkways that crisscross and overlook the floors below.
Make that challenges instead of problems.
"Wherever you are, you have to deal with the space," says Rasmussen, who has worked as director of Rockville Arts Place, Maryland Art Place and, most recently, the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, Calif., before returning to his graduate-school alma mater. "Even in the most boring building, you have the challenge of how to enliven a rectangular space."
Enlivening a rectangular space is not the challenge here. For one thing, there isn't any. For Rasmussen, the Katzen, with its unorthodox, sometimes quirky sightlines, presented not just a "more interesting" challenge than he's used to, but "more of them."
Ostensibly, "Soft Openings" is a grab bag, what Rasmussen calls an "inclusive" celebration of local art in a global context. Spotlighting artists young and old from the Baltimore and Washington area, along with a few international names, and contrasting new pieces with much older work, the show includes a large, abstract mural created on site by Kristin Holder, a recent graduate of the university's MFA painting program, and a smallish floral still life from 1965 by pioneering art department faculty member Ben L. Summerford, who is now in his eighties. In the final analysis, it's a show whose primary purpose is less to show off the talents of the area's artistic past and present than to show off -- or to accessorize, if you will -- the building itself.
To a large degree, it does a handsome job of it.
Take Puerto Rican-based painter Jaime Romano, another product of AU's graduate school. His "Contraplanos 11," an abstraction in acrylic and Sandtex masonry paint, subtly complements, in texture and hue, the museum's dun-colored concrete floors. Other works activate their surroundings in less obvious ways.
Washington sculptor Yuriko Yamaguchi's "Core," a cloudlike structure of chrysalid pods made of flax and abaca fiber that seem to swarm around a central light source, is suspended above the ground in the room known as the First Floor Large Gallery. Though it doesn't specifically speak to the building's architecture, it nevertheless makes excellent use of it: The work can be viewed from above as well as from all sides. Similarly, Sam Gilliam's colorful sculpture, "Climate of Light," which hangs above the staircase like half-deflated, box-shaped nylon balloons, takes advantage of the fact that visitors seeking out the upper floors will essentially ascend their way through it. The Washington artist's work pulls our eyes upward, toward it, but also toward the building's sun-filled skylights.
A pencil-on-paper installation by Hsin-Hsi Chen makes more overt, if generic, reference to architecture in her sweeping arc of drawings depicting the roofs of buildings as if viewed from above. Other works that allude to architecture or engineering include Edward Burtynsky's photograph "Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie # 6"; John Ruppert's cage-size "Crucible" of chain-link fencing; and Steve Cushner's "House of Cards," an abstract painting of blocklike forms, each of which, as the artist explained during a recent press walk-through, affected -- and was affected by -- any changes made by the artist to its neighboring forms.
By that same token, not everything in "Soft Openings" plays as well with others -- or in this particular rough-and-tumble playground -- as one might wish. Baltimore artist Joyce Scott, for instance, offers "Lavender," a glass, ceramic and beadwork sculpture whose delicacy allows it to get a little bit lost here.
On the other hand, Ed Bisese's pair of cartoonish, oversize heads (masks, really, since they're open in the back and you can walk inside) and a goofily heroic striding male figure (the latter, called "Come Back Jack," being a sly wink to Rasmussen's return from the West Coast) are more in keeping with the playful, boisterous feeling of the building. Since they can be viewed both from indoors and from the outdoor sculpture garden that they've taken over (where their gaze seems to stare back toward the galleries), they serve to nicely unify interior and exterior space.
Other standouts include not one but two of Madeleine Keesing's obsessively impastoed canvases; a grouping of sculptures by Baltimore's David Page inspired by oversize tea paraphernalia and, in the artist's words, serving as "a metaphor for power and the fragility of power"; Paul Kos's politically charged rendering of a giant chess pawn (made, ironically, of hundreds of magnetic kings and queens); and Christine Buckton Tillman's "forest from the trees," a floor installation in wool felt, the impact of whose environmental statement is strongest when viewed from the floor above.
"Soft Openings" is the kind of show that sends you up and down, and around in circles. It gets you looking not just at the art, but at the building in which it's situated. With any luck, it'll get you coming back again and again.
SOFT OPENINGS -- Through Sept. 17 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/katzen. Open Tuesday-Thursday noon to 5; Fridays and Saturdays noon to 7. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Sept. 10 at 2 -- Gallery talk by members of the curatorial staff and featured artists.