Artomatic is an art fair, of course. It’s also a craft show, a happening and an oversized hipster coffeehouse, stretched improbably this year across 10 of the 11 floors in an empty Crystal City office building. Wander through the overwhelming event and you’ll see as many works inspired by George Lucas, EC Comics or Frank Frazetta as by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock or — to mention an museum-certified artist whose influence is obvious here — Joseph Cornell.
The juxtapositions can be mind-bending. One former corner office, decorated to resemble a Victorian bordello, shows photos of near-naked women in Frazetta-style sword-and-sorcery getups. Just outside that room is a display, titled “Body Politics,” of plus-sized, saber-deprived female nudes. There’s lots of punk- and hip-hop-influenced work, but also a room devoted to posters designed (and signed) by Roger Dean, whose Yes album covers are landmarks of prog-rock kitsch. The many backward-gazing artists can’t even agree on a decade to obsess over. The 1970s seem to be ahead by a nose, but William Tinto’s black-and-white “Perry Mason” paintings (with decorative rabbit ears as part of the frames) spin the dial back another 20 years.
The non-curated Artomatic is famed, and in some quarters reviled, for its anything-goes outlook. Yet certain common interests emerge. A lot of contributors make good photos and travel a lot; an impressively large number of them have been to China. Encaustic painting, in which pigment is mixed with wax, is surprisingly prevalent. Skateboard decks and spray paints seem more popular than computer apps, although Sharon Price has a selection of “finger paintings” done on an iPhone. Realistic or impressionistic landscape painting, which has not been lacking from local galleries recently, is popular with Artomatic contributors. So are nudes, which are less commonly shown in the area’s often government- or corporate-hosted exhibition spaces.
There are no such inhibitions at Artomatic, which allows its participants to revel in repurposing or simply trashing parts of a former white-collar stronghold. The many leftover rooms greatly contribute to the overall vibe, allowing artists to cover whole interiors with paintings, build small virtual realities, illuminate their work with black light or even turn an entire chamber — as the Photo Gathering analog-photography group has done — into a camera obscura. Providing such spaces is one of the event’s major strengths.
Some artists, it’s said, worry about devaluing their work by participating in Artomatic. But this year’s edition includes stuff that’s been seen in local galleries, some of it as recently as this month. This array includes — to mention just a few — Emily Dolenz’s vividly hued photographs, Eric Celarier’s quilts made from computer circuit boards, Mark Parascandola’s Spanish landscape photos, Andrew Wodzianski’s abstractions atop movie lobby cards and Maria Jestaedt’s kimono-inspired ceramics, whose impeccable craft offers a strong contrast to the entries that show more enthusiasm than technique.
Also on display are things on the outer limits of what can be reasonably described as art: theater costumes and props, drawings of unicorns and elves, samples of wedding photography and those marshmallow Peeps dioramas sponsored by a local newspaper. The people love the Peeps, though, and much of Artomatic’s appeal is its openness to the untutored, the pop-cultural and the downright silly. Expecting a more definitive summation? If that were possible, this wouldn’t be Artomatic.
The painting in the display window at Gallery 555dc is sort of a mirror; passerby see themselves in it, and often enter the space to explain what they’ve recognized. The canvas, which shows the corner of 17th & R streets NW, is one of several in Glenn Moreton’s “Get Real” show that depict the Dupont Circle neighborhood. In the tradition of photorealist Richard Estes, the painter executes highly detailed cityscapes that seem entirely genuine (although sometimes he fudges details to make a stronger image). Moreton is not quite as fixated on reflective surfaces as Estes is, but check out the skyscrapers mirrored on the roof of a car in “Riverfront Parking,” an any-city-U.S. scene that happens to show Cincinnati. While viewers may react most strongly to scenes they know well, Moreton’s art captures archetypal as well as utterly local aspects of contemporary American life.
The dicotyledon, which provides the title of Rebate Aller’s photo exhibition at Adamson Gallery, is a kind of flowering plant whose blooms come in pairs. “Dicotyledon” is not a selection of flower pictures, but it does include several pairs: diptychs that contrast urban and rural, or human and environment. Aller is known for austere seascapes, and there are a few of those in this show. But the German-born New Yorker has started to add animals and humans (all children) to her crisply detailed, meticulously framed compositions, and sometimes arranged the images to converse with each other. In addition to the diptychs, there’s a six-panel study of sky and clouds in which two squares are pure blue — both empty and saturated. Aller captures shimmering, gem-like moments, and offering multiple views only increases the sense that she has perfect timing.
Upstairs at Alex Gallery and downstairs at Gallery A, two artists are continuing to work the color fields of mid-20th-century abstractionism. Linda Touby paints big, referencing classical painting — she has a series here titled “Homage to Giotto” — but hewing closer to such abstract expressionists as Clyfford Still. David Goslin pays explicit homage to the Washington Color School, especially the contrapuntal stripes of Gene Davis. That makes Goslin’s paintings (some of which were among the Alex Gallery work seized by Serbian border guards under dubious circumstances last fall) look a bit too familiar, although their use of color is lively and engaging. Touby mixes paint with wax, giving her work a depth that can suggest age, depth or the complex qualities of natural light. Touby’s paintings (which will be replaced next month by other examples of her work) are epic and mutable, both suggesting the vastness of nature and celebrating their own spaciousness.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Through June 23 at 1851 S. Bell St., Arlington; www.artomatic.org.
On view through May 30 at Gallery555dc, 555 12th St. NW; 202-393-1409, www.Gallery555dc.com.
On view through May 31 at Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-232-0707; www.adamsongallery.jimdo.com.
On view through May 31 at Alex Gallery, 2106 R St. NW; 202-667-2599; www.alexgalleries.com.