There’s almost always something worth checking out at the American University Museum. As director and curator Jack Rasmussen puts it, the school’s year-round exhibition program — which features four to six new shows every couple of months — is something of a three-ring circus. Just like the big top, it can be hard to know where to look.
American’s current roster of exhibitions is typically eclectic: one Cuban painter; three sculptors (two from St. Petersburg, Russia, one from Washington); a quartet of conceptual photographers; and a grab bag of surrealist images from the estate of the late Washington collector H. Marc Moyens. But the funniest, sexiest and smartest show of the bunch is a celebration of the 100-year-old legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the “readymade.”
Curated by artist, writer and educator Mark Cameron Boyd, “Readymade@100” is a survey of contemporary artworks inspired by the Duchampian concept of off-the-shelf artwork. (In 1914, Duchamp displayed an ordinary commercial metal rack used to dry bottles and called it sculpture. Ironically, the original was mistakenly thrown out as trash, although replicas of the piece were subsequently fabricated.)
True to its name, “Readymade@100” features prefab artworks made from material you can pick up at Home Depot: nail-gun cartridges, shovels, a flashlight, hex-head bolts and razor blades. Some of these things work as art objects simply because of the aesthetic way they’re displayed. Kristin Richards’s “Rug 001,” for instance, features 31,876 framing nails laid out in tidy rows, like a patterned carpet. Others take on meaning from a darkly wry title. Andrew Simmons’s framed and mounted razor blade is called, unsubtly enough, “Cure for Human Suffering.” Still others possess invisible conceptual heft. Adam Farcus’s “We go to bed, but we don’t sleep too hard” is a flashlight — turned on but positioned head-down so that its beam shines straight into the floor.
Wendy Ross’s piece — a rectangular wood-and-metal box spring called “Woven Dreams: Always + Already Made & Unmade” — contains a bit of an inside joke. It’s a beautiful object, pure and simple. But the fact that the bed coils also happen to resemble Ross’s welded metal sculptures — whose signature style can be seen in public installations around the Washington area — lends the work an additional layer of delight.
Some pieces have a naughty sense of humor. Kate Kretz’s “Brass With Lock” features a set of brass-colored testicles, sold as a novelty item to truckers and other motorists who hang them from their vehicles’ undercarriages. “My First Bra,” by Anne Mourier, is a matching pair of domed glass plate covers, shaped like breasts and sitting atop paper doilies.
But the show is more than sniggering, sophomoric humor. Benjamin Kelley’s “Untitled (Newport)” is the body of a 1971 Chrysler Newport automobile, sawed laterally in half and displayed on its side like a steel abstraction. As with “Cadillac Ranch” — the famous 1974 art installation of upended Cadillacs created by members of the art collective Ant Farm — Kelley’s “readymade” highlights the visual incongruity of the familiar.
That is, for the most part, the operative dynamic here: Take something familiar and make it strange, either through context, commentary or co-option. Something as simple as a No. 2 pencil — a tool of artmaking — becomes art itself when jutting out from the wall at a jaunty angle, as in Alex Mayer’s “Untitled #2 (Pencil).”
Perhaps the most brilliant piece in the show is Mazin Abdelhameid’s “#Found.” It’s simply an empty white pedestal beneath the titular hashtag posted on the wall. Visitors are encouraged to place their own readymade object on the pedestal and photograph it, tagging the image with “#found” and uploading it to such photo-sharing sites as Instagram.
Abdelhameid’s message is clear, and still resonant after Duchamp first articulated it a century ago: You go to museums to look for art, but you might also find it hiding inside your pocket or purse.
Upstairs from the “Readymade@100” show is another worthy exhibition. “Memorial Modeling” features sculptural installations by two contemporary Russian artists: Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov.
Their work shares a theme of destruction, with Belyi’s “Red Meteorite” evoking a building that has been devastated by a hurtling chunk of space debris and Shvetsov’s “Fragile Balance” evoking the collapse of a large concrete structure. (It looks kind of like the interior of a subway station, mid-earthquake.)
Both artists are 43 years old and came of age during the economic and political turmoil known as perestroika, the reform movement that many say led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The influence of upheaval can be strongly felt in their work.
Belyi says he is by nature drawn to the “romance” of ruins and broken-down things. In fact, the artist says, his visit to the Bethesda quarry where he obtained the nearly 400-pound stone at the centerpiece of “Meteorite” was more inspiring than a trip to the National Gallery of Art.
“Memorial Modeling” also is on view through Oct. 19.
Through Oct. 19 at the American University Museum at the
Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.
— Michael O'Sullivan