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Phillips Collection spotlights Jonathan Monaghan’s restless vision

‘Move the Way You Want’ is part of the museum’s ‘Intersections’ series pairing contemporary art with works from the collection

Giorgio de Chirico's “Horses” is one of two paintings at the Phillips Collection that inspired video artist Jonathan Monaghan. (Giorgio De Chirico/Phillips Collection/Artists Rights Society/SIAE)

The small Giorgio de Chirico painting on the wall is probably not the first thing visitors to the Phillips Collection will notice upon entering “Move the Way You Want.” But the picture, which depicts two horses on a beach and the remains of a classical Greco-Roman structure, can be seen as the wellspring for Jonathan Monaghan’s entire show. The exhibition’s centerpiece is an eight-minute animated video that features a horse on a beach.

“Move the Way You Want” is the latest installment in the Phillips’s “Intersections” series, which invites contemporary artists to respond to pieces in the museum’s collection — and, if so inclined, the building itself. Monaghan chose two equine paintings, de Chirico’s “Horses” (circa 1928) and Théodore Géricault’s “Two Horses” (1808-09). He also took inspiration from the space he chose: a gallery that served as Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s dining room before they turned their mansion into a full-time public gallery in 1930.

Anyone who’s seen previous Monaghan videos, however, will recognize that his current piece doesn’t derive simply from those two paintings and the room in which they now hang. “Move the Way You Want” illustrates several interests the artist has demonstrated in previous computer-generated animations.

Monaghan, who chairs Catholic University’s art department, often sets scenes on beaches, which evoke his childhood in New York City’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood. His videos frequently follow a lone animal protagonist that travels through a universe that’s devoid of people yet full of reminders of human civilization. And historical architecture recurs in Monaghan’s work, which contrasts elaborate ornamentation with space-age modernism. (At the show’s opening, Monaghan said that he considers the lavishness of baroque architecture analogous to the profusion of digital stimuli today.)

The artist’s witty animations germinated from a formative influence that has nothing to do with the Phillips: video games. His early pieces actually appropriated characters and settings from such gaming franchises as Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros. What endures from those days is the sense of motion: A creature lopes through incongruous environments, often entering a spaceship that descends, hovers and ascends again. The videos’ vantage points also move, panning up, down and sideways, as if filmed by a movie camera.

As its title suggests, “Move the Way You Want” continues Monaghan’s exploration of motion. But the artist combines this with another perennial interest: the corporate commodification of modern life. So his purple-brown horse is patterned with silver insignia that may look vaguely familiar, since each is a reproduction of the logo Uber used from 2016 to 2018. In a dream-logic version of contemporary D.C., the animal trots along a beach littered with green-and-white Lime electric scooters and orange Jump electric bicycles, and past a farmers market that sells electronics as well as produce.

Also abandoned on the shore is a Peloton stationary bicycle, a device that — not unlike Monaghan’s videos — can simulate journeys. Pelotons are outfitted with display monitors, so the exercise bicycle’s video screen serves as a sort of interior mirror of the animation itself. In fact, the horse initially appears from the Peloton’s screen in a birth scene that’s a metaphor for the creation of computer images: The animal emerges from one screen onto another screen.

To say the horse appears “initially” isn’t quite right, though. The video is a loop, so it doesn’t really begin or end. It depicts daily life as an endless, well, cycle of movement and consumption. At one point, the horse is grabbed by a drone that bears the logo of Amazon Prime. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The show does offer a more traditional approach to time by affixing to the room’s walls three large stills from the video, each contained in a computer rendering of an ornate frame. But these pictures are clearly secondary to the video, whose cultural contrasts and historical juxtapositions are accentuated by continual motion. When Monaghan gives everybody permission to move the way they want, he may be thinking less of e-bikes than of his own restless artistic vision.

If you go

Jonathan Monaghan: Move the Way You Want

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202 -387-2151. phillipscollection.org.

Dates: Through Dec. 31.

Admission: Included with general admission of $16; $12 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; and free for members, children under 18 and military personnel. Masks are required. So are timed-entry tickets, except for members.

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