There’s no art on the walls at Flashpoint Gallery at the moment, but maybe that’s the point. Blair Murphy’s “Footprint aka the Lansburgh’s Notebook” is a map of the de-arting of downtown.
Murphy is the managing director of the D.C. Arts Center, which was never based downtown but germinated from that scene. She’s too young to have experienced the era when galleries, artists’ studios and other arts uses were common in a neighborhood awaiting the transformation engineered by Metro, the city’s Redevelopment Land Agency and the federal Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. But Murphy has researched the subject well, relying in part on the archives of a group that hoped to convert several floors of the former Lansburgh’s department store into a humanities and arts center. (That didn’t happen, although the building did end up with the Shakespeare Theatre Company.)
Murphy’s digging yielded 33 locations in an area that stretches from Pennsylvania Avenue to O Street, and from Third Street to 14th Street. The map spotlights a few arts venues that survived, many that relocated and some that simply vanished as the precinct was remade. There are a few omissions, but Murphy promises to update the project with future editions.
Today’s downtown arts district is actually livelier than the map suggests. Murphy intentionally excluded well-established institutions with large budgets — mostly theaters — as well as several office-lobby galleries that resulted from the city’s zoning or historic-preservation requirements. Yet the peak period has clearly passed, and arts spaces continue to depart. The show’s punchline is this bit of information about the venue where the map is now on display: “Flashpoint Gallery and Mead Theater Lab, 2004-2017.”
Blair Murphy: Footprint aka the Lansburgh’s Notebook On view through May 6 at Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St. NW. 202-315-1305. culturaldc.org/visual-arts/flashpoint-gallery.
Also in a retrospective mood, Transformer is presenting “Meridians Lab,” an interactive account of D.C.’s alt-arts scene from 1997 to the present. The concept, credited to Jess Solomon + Co., emphasizes “emergence, feminine economy and radical imagination.”
On one of the venue’s two longer walls, newspaper clippings and historical artifacts are supplemented by remarks and recollections from gallery visitors. There are many laments for “Footnote’s” subject: bygone arts spaces.
Some longtime Washingtonians might argue that 1997 to 2017 is not the most stimulating moment in the city’s artistic history. Perhaps that’s why the opposite wall looks to the future. As of a recent visit, most of the posted comments were, unsurprisingly, about gentrification. A tomorrow in which most artists can’t afford to live and work in the District seems likely.
Visions of the future are usually recastings of the past, so punsters twist a name that was famous yesterday: The city’s first white mayor will be Mary Anne Barry, or its first Asian one will be Mei Ri Ahn Barry. Can D.C. culture in 2037 be more than a wisecrack? That’s up to artists and patrons. On May 6 from 5 to 8 p.m., they’re invited to “help us build out a collective vision for the next 20 years.”
Meridians Lab: Experiments, Change and Praxis On view through May 6 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW. 202-483-1102. transformerdc.org.
Like the arts organizations based in downtown buildings slated for redevelopment during the 1970s and ’80s, Artomatic inhabits structures that will be remade for more conventional mercantile purposes. The difference is that Artomatic moves in, not for years, but for just a few weeks. That can bring spontaneity and serendipity to unlikely spots, such as the empty Crystal City office block that has briefly ceded seven floors to art. Still, after 18 years of the uncurated, unjuried fairs, certain elements are predictable.
Many of the 600 contributors offer imagery derived from, or suitable for, the commercial-art multiverse of fantasy, cheesecake, sci-fi, cute animals and travel photography. A lot of this stuff is very well done but doesn’t really need the exposure. Some if it, in fact, can be found on websites such as Etsy.
As usual, Artomatic’s temporary home is mostly divided into small former offices. That makes it harder to survey, but the contained spaces do lend themselves to immersive installations. Among the darkened-room highlights are pulsing light pieces by Evie Altman and Barry Schnetter (whose work also emits music) and Bardia Saeedi. Also striking is Justine Light’s large tree stump, dead and yet alive, because it’s embellished with shells and pine cones embedded in moss.
Some of the most engaging pieces are 3-D. Trish Kent fashions fancy dresses out of glass, Bart Hawe makes giant metal cookie cutters, and Paul G. Cunningham crafts curving, brightly hued geometric forms that appear rubbery but are actually mesh and pigment. They twist and pop at the same time.
Joan Konkel, who shows at Zenith Gallery, has long made paintings that incorporate metallic mesh. Here she is showing a two-panel work that, uncharacteristically, features a white backdrop. The result is appealingly spacious, and seems to activate new terrain for her work. Konkel could have introduced this innovation somewhere else, but it seems apt she chose wide-open Artomatic.
Artomatic 2017 On view through May 6 at 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. artomatic.org.
California’s Salton Sea has suffered two major losses: first water, then tourists. Eric Johnson documents the effects of both departures in “Mono Lake/Salton Sea,” his show of black-and-white photographs at Multiple Exposures Gallery. The D.C. artist portrays landscapes of salt outcroppings, limestone towers and abandoned buildings, set off by water and sky that share rich gray tones. He shoots wide and in close-up, vertical and horizontal, to encompass the many ways a visitor might soak up the scenery.
Neither the mountain-nestled Mono nor the below-sea-level Salton has outflows; water escapes only through evaporation, so the remaining liquid is brackish and mineral rich. Diversion of water for agriculture and Los Angeles’s aqueducts increased the salinity, and eventually destroyed the Salton Sea’s recreational economy. Johnson devotes one of the gallery’s three walls to decaying, mostly abandoned structures; these include a pair of “Sunken Trailers,” little more than metallic skeletons awaiting an archaeologist. Conservation efforts have started to heal Mono Lake, but the Salton Sea’s human presence continues to wither.
Mono Lake/Salton Sea: Photography by Eric Johnson On view through May 7 at Multiple Exposures Gallery, Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-683-2205. multipleexposuresgallery.com.