WHY GO to an art gallery?
Why, indeed, when most have Web sites, some of which post a lot -- or a little -- of the works on view online? Why get out of your chair and drive somewhere to look at something pretty (or not) when those images that aren't already online probably can be e-mailed to the comfort of your home or office, if only you were to ask?
I'm about to tell you why.
Two concurrent exhibitions recently got me thinking about this question. The first one is at Hemphill Fine Arts, where the sculpture of Mary Early (a young artist whose two beeswax-on-wood pieces are not even the main attraction) is on view alongside the work of William Willis, a longtime area painter whose symbolist, nature-inspired imagery is in local and national museum collections. The second show, "Public Matters, Private Matters" at Strand on Volta, is a small group show of video work addressing, from various standpoints, the meaning of "private" vs. "public." The first show has something that, for lack of a better word, I'll call presence. The second emphatically, almost defiantly, does not.
Let's start with the one that does not.
The three "Public/Private" artists selected by curator Lucy Hogg (full disclosure: Hogg is married to Post art critic Blake Gopnik) have little in common, other than theme. Turkish artist Osman Bozkurt's "Auto-Park" is a serviceable 15-minute documentary whose subjects are the low-income Istanbul residents who risk injury and sometimes death to use what amounts to a glorified median strip -- separated from their neighborhoods by several lanes of whizzing traffic -- as parkland. They're shown picnicking and playing soccer, all the while bemoaning the lack of bathroom facilities and other amenities. Canadian artist Allyson Clay's two-channel "Imaginary Standard Distance: Day/Night" is essentially soundless surveillance footage, shot from the artist's Paris studio by day, and again during the night, of people using a neighborhood phone booth. Canadian artist Milutin Gubash's series "Near and Far" is here represented by three short pieces, each of which depicts the artist engaging in a kind of performance, under the affectless gaze of his parents, at the sites of various deaths he has read about in the Calgary Herald.
Of the three, Gubash's work, which involves cinematic framing and editing and post-production sound, is the most artful, or at least involves the most artifice. He isn't so much concerned with public and private space as he is with some less obvious, and far more personal, dichotomy.
None of these works, as it happens, ought to be experienced in an art gallery. In this day and age, it's like people gathering in a room to listen to the same record instead of simply turning on the radio.
As it happens, I watched Bozkurt's video online (available at www.freewaves.org/artists/o_bozkurt/) before I visited the show. At Strand on Volta, it's presented on a monitor, with headphones. That's an unnecessary option for most Americans, considering the fact that the people in it are speaking subtitled Turkish, but at least the headphones block out the sound from Gubash's work, shown in video projection with a soundtrack emanating from small speakers just behind the viewer. Other than ambient studio noise, Clay's piece has no sound. A handful of folding chairs are provided for visitors.
Why, I wonder, would anyone go to an art gallery to watch this stuff?
Sure, other than Bozkurt's piece, it's the only place you can see it at the moment. And I'm not saying it isn't worth seeing. Bozkurt's "Auto-Park" makes interesting points about the failure of Istanbul urban planning and about man's adaptability. And Clay's video, shot in 1997 before the ubiquity of cell phones, is a mildly effective commentary on the illusion of privacy. Gubash's works are more complex, and less easily explained. They alone bear repeat viewings, but even then, I would rather have watched them in my den, on my laptop, with my Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones.
Why, oh why, like Bozkurt's "Auto-Park," don't these other two artists take advantage of an art vlog somewhere -- the video equivalent of a blog, often with video podcasting capability? It's not as if Clay or Bozkurt's cinematography is all that, requiring the sanctity -- and technological advantages -- of a movie theater. Or a gallery, for that matter. For the most part, the videos of "Public/Private" are like many of the videos that come across my e-mail inbox. Their points are readily gotten and digested. Watch them once, e-mail them to a friend (maybe) and then get on with your life.
The power of Early's untitled sculptures at Hemphill (one a wheel-like form, the other a tapered, star-shaped tower) is in stark contrast to Strand on Volta's videos. What first piqued my curiosity about Early's work was an e-mailed image -- resembling nothing so much as an oversize slice of pineapple -- that the gallery sent me. Of course, I was unprepared for the profoundly physical impact of being in the same room as these strange yellow objects.
For one thing, you can smell the beeswax, with which they are covered, even before you enter the gallery. For another, they seem not just to glow with light from within, but to generate heat. What do they mean? I have no idea, but their presence, their thing-ness, is so strong, and their pull so powerful, that it was hard to tear myself away.
That's why people still go to art galleries. And that's why people still want to own art: so they can look at it again and again, and always find something new. It's the same reason some people go to church. To experience something so magnetic, and so mysterious, that it's almost sacred.
Few works on video, no matter how smart, and no matter how fancy the setting we watch them in, have that pull.
WILLIAM WILLIS: PAINTINGS AND WORKS ON PAPER AND MARY EARLY: SCULPTURE -- Through Dec. 23 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-234-5601. www.hemphillfinearts.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5. Free.
PUBLIC MATTERS, PRIVATE MATTERS -- Through Dec. 10 at Strand on Volta, 1531 33rd St. NW. 202-333-4663. www.strandonvolta.com. Open Thursday-Friday 11 to 4; Saturdays 11 to 6. Free.