Soon after the American Revolution, a strong market for pottery developed in the brand-new United States. Many of these items were made in Great Britain, although they featured such phrases as “Peace, Plenty and Independence” in commemoration of George Washington. That motto is emblazoned on a newly made stoneware pot featured in “Centennial of the Everyday” at the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. Yet the show is not a celebration of late-18th-century American values. Instead, artists Lauren France Adams and Stewart Watson ask: Who produced the plenty — and did they have independence?
George Washington was a slave owner, of course, and so was John Gadsby, who opened the two-story tavern circa 1785 and added a three-story hotel building in 1792. There were few labor-saving devices in those days, so there was lots of drudgery, much of it done by slaves. The site-specific new artworks scattered among the museum’s historical artifacts call attention to the tasks performed and the skills possessed by people who were excluded from the rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence. (And, yes, that document’s author did sup here.)
Adams and Watson, who teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art, work mostly with domestic crafts including ceramics and embroidery. But they slip history and technology into the Federal-style accessories. The pots offer sound — one recites a Langston Hughes poem — and video. Seat covers for a set of chairs feature facsimiles of newspaper clippings from the period, including a notice placed by Gadsby in which he advertises a need for “servants” — a euphemism.
Much of the art involves textual or symbolic representations. The show culminates with sculptural collages that encapsulate the lives of seven people associated with the tavern, including descendants of both Gadsby and one of his slaves. But some of the simplest objects are the most evocative. A mound of sugar represents those products, newly common in the 18th century, that financed the Atlantic slave trade.
The centennial being commemorated, by the way, is a major one for the tavern, if not for the country. In 1917, the interior of the then-dilapidated hotel’s ballroom was removed to Manhattan, where it became part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. The ballroom at Gadsby’s is a reproduction — and a vision of gentility that “Centennial of the Everyday” deftly undermines.
Because the contemporary (and temporary) additions are subtly integrated into the exhibits, the museum recommends that visitors take a guided tour, but it’s not required.
Lauren France Adams and Stewart Watson: Centennial of the Everyday On view through Sept. 3 at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, 134 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 703-746-4242. alexandriava.gov/GadsbysTavern.
Most of the pieces in Sarah Nesbitt’s show at Target Gallery are photographs, but her real subject is information, which very much includes words as well as images. In the Detroit artist’s “Making Sense of What We Have,” text is often tactile and sometimes damaged. One entry is a notebook, its pages lacerated, with scraps on the floor below. In a photo of a large printing press, the bottom of a sheet of printed newsprint melts into liquid. The show’s title piece is a photo of newspaper scraps on a scale, their worth measured purely by weight.
Nesbitt’s interests are “forgeries, stolen artwork, plagiarism, memory, censorship, the writing and rewriting of histories, evaluating the gap between accuracy and fiction,” she writes. This is exemplified by a huge print of many images from an art writer’s slide collection, annotated by Nesbitt. Pictured are works by artists who were threatened by the Nazis or the Soviets; a Joan Miró tapestry destroyed along with New York’s World Trade Center; and a Henry Moore bronze that was stolen and probably melted down. If a monumental sculpture can simply vanish, what are the odds that a newspaper story — or the ideas in it — will endure?
Sarah Nesbitt: Making Sense of What We Have On view through Sept. 3 at Target Gallery, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-746-4590. torpedofactory.org/target.
Like most group shows of July and August, Watergate Gallery’s “9 Summer Sensations” has no particular theme. It encompasses painting, sculpture and mixed-media assemblages, in both abstract and representational modes. There are expressionist nudes by Lucy McMahon, rollicking with voluptuous pinks, and small wall-mounted boxes by Josh Whipkey, painted in pop-art plaids that sometimes reveal copper cladding beneath the pigment. Mike Shaffer, a Watergate regular, offers characteristically exuberant sculptures, generally in springy metal but also in wood.
Although their work is otherwise disparate, Jane Pettit and Barbara Kobylinska both combine traditional art materials with found objects. Pettit’s free-standing mosaics arrange glass, shells, fiberglass and concrete, held together compositionally by color or form. Many pieces are principally in white and shades of blue, but “Wild Affinities” presents a full rainbow of glass shards.
Kobylinska’s mainly wooden sculptures of fish mimic the look of mounted trophies, but with a playful outlook. Found objects, often metal, substitute for fins, tails and eyes, while colorfully patterned backdrops suggest motion through psychedelic seas. If one of these creatures were to get free of its frame, it might swim right into an avant-garde cartoon.
Nine Summer Sensations On view through Sept. 16 at Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-338-4488. watergategalleryframedesign.com.
A more diverse menagerie prowls “Variety Is the Spice of Life,” the 15-artist show at the Sculpture Space at 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The largest is Larry Ringgold’s nearly life-size rhino; it’s ingeniously constructed, like all of his pieces, from driftwood. Less bulky but also towering are Todd Warner’s streamlined giraffe and ostrich, with nearly flat bodies but more rounded necks and heads. Mali-bred Ibou N’Diaye’s sculptures, carved from wood in a traditional style, include a centaur-like horse and rider, but most striking is a stool incised with ceremonial patterns.
The wildest beasts in this zoo are two men devised by Stephen Hansen, who does caricatures in sculptural form. One is an auto mechanic flummoxed by a diagnostic computer; the other an office worker equally overwhelmed by the output of a printer. Such unruly technology is enough to drive anyone back to ancient crafts such as wood sculpture.
Variety Is the Spice of Life On view through Sept. 9 at the Sculpture Space at 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-783-2963. zenithgallery.com.