FIRST, the good news.
There are actually some wonderful artists in "Options 2005," the biennial contemporary art exhibition organized by the Washington Project for the Arts (now the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran) since 1981 -- artists whose work could legitimately be described as original, interesting . . . and good. Among them is Susan Noyes Vaughan, whose razor-blade-on-canvas offerings are all that and more. Both darkly emotional (in their evocation of violence) and coolly decorative (in their geometric reserve), they manage to simultaneously straddle "the expressive and the minimalist," to use the words of curator Libby Lumpkin, who organized the 20-artist show from a field of 400 submissions and who led a walk-through of the show on a rainy opening weekend. Plus, they're cool to look at.
Unfortunately, Vaughan is one of a minority whose art could be called even remotely cutting edge, in her case literally as well as figuratively.
Among Vaughan's more successful colleagues are Suzanna Fields, Tim DeVoe, Jorge Benitez, Emily Hall, Lori Larusso, Marc Robarge and Gary Thompson. I especially like DeVoe's work, which I first saw two years ago at an exhibition showcasing the art of graduating BFA students at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art. Particularly impressive then was a giant, room-size mechanical hand that the artist had built and that could only be operated by several people, each one manipulating a different finger.
It might have come in handy here in "Options," since the sculptor's two offerings include a piece of construction drywall that looks as if it has been crumpled by Gargantua. Lying on the floor like a piece of paper discarded by an oversize frustrated architect, it's a meticulously fabricated -- if monumentally scaled -- facsimile of trash that wittily speaks to the raw aesthetic and former identity of the exhibition space (a one-time Georgetown office store) and the puniness of our own existence. DeVoe's second offering (a wall that seems to bulge with a drywall tumor, in the process buckling the wainscoting) is equally disorienting, but in a good way.
Fields's sculptural paintings, in which the artist fashions dried acrylic paint into almost floral arrangements, are always a treat -- if one that has been seen a little too often in recent months, both at Irvine Contemporary and the McLean Project for the Arts.
Which brings me to my next point. Is it even possible for something to have been seen too much? Artists may disagree, but I think it is. That's precisely the problem with Anne Benolken's installation of shadow-box constructions. I (and, I daresay, much of the Washington art community) first encountered them several years ago at "Artomatic." To Lumpkin, an art historian, writer and curator who works in Las Vegas, Benolken's work may be, as Lumpkin said, "very, very different from any boxes I've ever seen." Unfortunately for a lot of people in this town, they're anything but.
Hiring a curator with zero familiarity with the regional art scene is the least of the WPA/C's worries, though. Lumpkin also seems inexplicably taken with the most retrograde of artistic endeavors. How else to explain her gushing defense of Sheila Blake's suite of ho-hum paintings and preparatory pastels depicting the four seasons as seen from the artist's suburban back yard? Yes, they're "closely observed." And, sure, the artist's determination to "capture the light" is nothing short of admirable. But the same could be said of the work of schlockmeister Thomas Kinkade (that trademarked "painter of light"), yet I don't see his work hanging in the Hirshhorn.
Elsewhere, Lumpkin seems similarly, inexplicably infatuated with the antique, most notably with the retro-modernist sculptures of George Tkabladze, who appears to be channeling (or, as someone less charitable might say, ripping off) any number of early-20th-century artists: Brancusi, Moore, Marini, as Lumpkin all too accurately points out in her catalogue essay. It may be true, as Lumpkin says, that much of our nostalgia for early modernism (here she's speaking for herself, not me) has to do with the fact that "there was a future then" and the fact that there isn't one now. But it's an awfully depressing thought, especially from a contemporary curator. If that's the case, why don't we just throw in the towel?
Even Lumpkin admits that Judith Baumann's themes are "tired," but at least they hark back only to the 1980s, not the 1920s. In Bauman's Photoshopped collages of lawnmower and vacuum-cleaner swarms descending on the earth, the artist is clearly addressing the notion of the encroachment of human culture on the natural world. But what are these warmed-over ideas doing in a show that used to be thought of as a survey of the new?
New is overrated anyway. Skill, on the other hand, is a perennial. I honestly doubt the composition of Amanda Sauer's overly sentimental, saccharine-sweet photographs of Washington landmarks -- the Korean War Memorial, Hains Point, etc. -- would have caught anyone's eye if they hadn't been taken with a pinhole camera, which lends them a bit of low-tech art cred.
But enough with the bad news.
Only about a third of the show passes muster, true. Still, it's more than a numbers game. There's just something about the cumulative weight of the show's failures -- its over-reliance on the work of recent art school grads, particularly from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; its inability to distinguish between the nostalgic and the stale, between the novel and novelty; and the feeling that it has been juried rather than curated -- that seems to rob even the worthy artists of the pleasure their work would otherwise evoke.
OPTIONS 2005 -- Through Nov. 27 at 3307 M St. NW. 202-639-1828. www.wpaconline.org. Open Fridays 6 to 10; Saturdays noon to 10; Sundays noon to 8. Free.