For a gallery show whose title refers to the piquant condiment squeezed over wings and fries at D.C. carryouts, “Mumbo Sauce” suffers from a severe case of blandness.
Curated by Los Angeles-based graffiti archivist Roger Gastman and the Contemporary Wing gallery’s Lauren Gentile, “Mumbo Sauce” is intended to be the gallery companion to the freshly shuttered “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s” exhibition, which Gastman organized at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. And talk about synergy: There also is a related movie, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” which Gastman made with Joseph Pattisall; it premiered last month at the AFI Silver Theatre.
“Pump Me Up” offered a misty-eyed chronicling of the District in the ’80s, through handwritten song lyrics, newsprint, album covers, posters and photographs drawn in part from Gastman’s vast reserves. But, Gastman explains, “there was no place to show an artist, or art for art’s sake, in the ‘Pump Me Up’ show.” If “Pump Me Up” was a flip through an old photo album, “Mumbo Sauce” promised to be the canvas you lingered over.
But “Mumbo” fails to illuminate. Its curators have called the show a survey, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that particular ambition was abandoned long ago.
Gastman and Gentile have collected a compelling list of artists whose work is inextricably tied to the District — Cynthia Connolly, Rosina Teri Memolo and Robin Rose among them. But a survey begs for its artists to be connected to one another and to the landscape. Their collective significance should be broadcast loud and clear. That doesn’t happen here.
Blame synergistic fatigue. The first venue for “Mumbo,” in Southeast Washington, fell through, pushing the opening back by three weeks. When the show finally opened this month in a makeshift gallery in a 3,000-square-foot storefront on H Street NE, things felt deflated. The walls bear a handful of markered tear-outs from the sketchbooks of graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan; a few vintage concert posters drawn by outsider artist Mingering Mike (who will have a major exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2015); and stacks of Globe Poster Printing Corp.’s striking Day-Glo go-go posters, which found better treatment in the Corcoran’s rotunda.
The exhibit does better by Connolly, who had two pieces in “Pump Me Up,” including her illustration for the Minor Threat album “Out of Step.” She is understood as a photographer here, in 15 desolate, black-and-white images of roadside signs snapped in Alabama between 2002 and 2004.
In a window overlooking the street, Mark Jenkins’s dark-swathed sculpture of a human figure is frozen at either a precise moment of impact or a pensive moment of supplication, palms feeling for solid ground, shopping cart awkwardly pitched over his back. As with Jenkins’s previous sculptures, which regularly stirred reactions on D.C. streets almost a decade ago, it’s a talker. During my visit, passersby on H Street banged on the window and yelled at the figure, confounded by its preternatural humanness. It is pure, recognizable Jenkins.
“Mumbo Sauce,” however, packs more of a wallop when it doesn’t rely on the familiar. On a back wall, Jenkins has veered from his sculpture, instead splashing the word “NEXT” across a pseudo-Impressionist painting, cheekily directing viewers to move along to the next trend. (Amusingly, that trend may be text-based art.)
Under the nom de street Borf, John Tsombikos was once the District’s enfant terrible of graffiti. Now based in Chicago, the artist contributed four panels to “Mumbo Sauce” depicting menacing, faceless authorities gripping young, fleshier dissidents. Fire envelops a District police car, as if 1999’s World Trade Organization protests in Seattle had come home to roost. Scratched out in oil pastel, the works represent a kind of bookend to Borf’s local career, a glimpse of where Tsombikos’s talents are leading him.
The prize for most improved, however, goes to Tim Conlon, a respected graffiti artist whose recent “Blank Canvas” series demonstrates a vast shift in his work. Here, on canvases streaked with the patina of rust, Conlon coolly re-creates the surfaces of rail yards, those hideaways for spray-paint-bearing youths. But he’s no longer one of them; his colors are remarkably subdued, his eye dispassionate. The paintings in the series are complemented with nifty model trains he’s adorned with tags, but even they feel serious. In a show that feels like less than the sum of its parts, the crisp moodiness of Conlon’s work beckons.
Through April 21 at 906 H St. NE. 202-730-5037. www.contemporarywing.com .
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