The Arlington Arts Center rang in the new year, its 40th year in operation, with an exhibition that paired five established artists — including some veterans of past shows and some artists who simply kept studios there over the years — with five up-and-coming artists. In a continuation of the retrospective theme, AAC has gone back to its exhibition archives, unearthing four shows from 1983, 1990, 1992 and 2008. The shows themselves — or, rather, their themes and ideas — have been dusted off and repackaged for a new audience, and with new artists.
In only a few cases is actual work from those earlier shows being presented again. More often, it’s simply the spirit of the old shows that has been reconstituted, with an infusion of recent art. For that reason, “Reprise: 40 to the Fore” feels like a show where the visual sometimes takes a back seat to the conceptual.
Each of the new shows has a curator — typically someone connected to the earlier project as artist or curator. In only one case is that person brand-new. Jarvis DuBois, an emerging curator with experience in museum collections management, was brought in to organize “Of Present Bodies,” a show on the theme of race loosely inspired by the 1983 AAC exhibition “Of the Black Experience,” which was curated by Roderic A. Taylor.
“Of Present Bodies” includes work by only one artist from that 1983 show: Michael B. Platt. Based on photographs of naked black bodies smeared with paint, Platt’s art is striking. The figures in his largest work — a 2014 digital print that takes up an entire wall — seem covered with something halfway between whiteface and tribal makings. Platt is joined here by three artists known largely for performance but represented in the gallery by photos and video: Holly Bass, Sondra Perry and Sheldon Scott (the last of whom also contributes a bit of sculptural installation).
This show, which explores themes of blackness, power and visibility, is the strongest of the four on view. It also sets a tone that is repeated throughout “Reprise,” which is heavily political and occasionally weighed down by its concepts: identity, homelessness, AIDS, addiction, violence and the economy.
There is a bit of eye candy in curator Judy Byron’s “Home (Again),” a remixing of a 1992 show, but it stands out like a sore thumb. Janell Olah’s “go to where you can breathe” — a brightly colored sculpture representing a domestic interior space and exterior view (in the form of an inflatable orange sunset) — feels weirdly out of step with the other artworks Byron has selected, which are noticeably quieter and more contemplative.
Quiet is good.
Artist Danielle Scruggs’s portraits of victims of violence, for instance, have a strange potency that belies their deliberately inelegant rendering. Traced from images available on the Internet, Scruggs’s art is part of “InterActivism,” a show put together by artist, writer and curator John James Anderson, who was included in the 2008 exhibition “Picturing Politics: Artists Speak to Power.”
The artists Anderson has gathered are among the standouts of “Reprise.” They include documentary photographer Gabriela Bulisova, whose “Time Zone” series portrays a woman struggling to rebuild her life after incarceration for a double murder. Siobhan Rigg’s “Mammoth Cheese” project, which includes a curdmaking station that the artist will use in an interactive performance Aug. 2, is slightly more whimsical. Even so, Rigg’s true subject isn’t cheese, but labor, class and income inequality.
What is the point of digging up these old shows? Curator George Ciscle’s “AIDS Unanswered” might best illustrate the effectiveness of the strategy. Part of the show includes photographs from a 1990 exhibition Ciscle curated, “Outcry: Artists Answer AIDS.” Created nearly 25 years ago, Virginia Brown’s black-and-white portraits of people with AIDS revisit the early years of the epidemic. They’re haunted by a sense of undiminished sadness that this plague is still with us.
The inclusion of Brown’s work is a stark commentary on how the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Virginia Brown is not the only “Reprise” artist to grapple with the subject of AIDS. Eric Gottesman, whose work appears in “InterActivism,” is represented by two AIDS-themed videos.
Both were created in collaboration with children in Africa whose lives have been affected by the AIDS crisis. They are less works of art, in and of themselves, than documents of performances, which are the true artworks.
The more compelling of the two videos is “Yabat Ida Le Lij” (“The Debt the Father Owes the Son”). Shot in Ethiopia with Sudden Flowers, a children’s art workshop founded by Gottesman, the 13-minute narrative depicts a family devastated by AIDS, which first kills the father and then the mother.
The child actors, who play all the parts, wear masks on camera, not only protecting their identities from those who would stigmatize them, but also representing the invisibility that many AIDS orphans feel.
Through Oct. 5 at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (Metro: Virginia Square). 703-248-6800. www.arlingtonartscenter.org . Open Wednesday-Friday 1 to 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Free.
Public programs: The AAC will present two free gallery talks on the exhibitions. On Aug. 23 from
1 to 4 p.m., the talk will cover “InterActivism” and “Of Present Bodies.” On Sept. 6 from 1 to 4 p.m., the talk will cover “Home (Again)” and “AIDS Unanswered.”