There’s a delicate balancing act going on in the streets of Foggy Bottom, where the fourth edition of a biennial sculpture exhibition has settled in for the next few months. Issues of taste, scale, durability and subject matter have all been carefully weighed, as they often are when dealing with public art.
The works on view in “Sculpted: Histories Revealed” are not the sleek monoliths of the modern office courtyard or the bronze generals on horseback standing astride our traffic circles. These 16 objects are quieter, weirder and more unassuming. At their best, you might not even know they’re art.
Case in point: Christian Benefiel’s “Home Is Where the Hole Is.” The artist’s strangely beautiful steel-and-cast-iron forms, which vaguely resemble rusted buoys, sit on a tree lawn, as if waiting to be picked up by the trash truck. They subvert our expectations, which is, I think, one of the things that art should do.
First mounted by the group Arts in Foggy Bottom in 2008, the sculpture showcase is scattered throughout the manicured lawns and gardens of the neighborhood’s private homes, with an occasional piece spilling into public space, or encroaching, like ivy, onto a wall. One work, by illustrator Elizabeth Graeber, is technically not even sculpture, but a mural. Still, the whimsy of Graeber’s flower-themed painting — applied to the side of a home that sticks out, like a rust-stained thumb, in the middle of an alley — turns the otherwise ungainly building into an art object in and of itself.
Beautification, however, hardly seems the point. Or at least not the only point. Although many of the works are undeniably pretty, a handful engage with darker themes.
Graham Caldwell’s “Watching Post,” for instance, alludes to surveillance culture. Situated on a signpost, with the Watergate complex conveniently in the background, the glass artist’s installation features a starburst of mirrors mounted on long steel arms, like an abstract Argus. (Note: As of press time, the piece had been temporarily deinstalled so city maintenance workers could repaint the post. Nothing nefarious. It should be back on view — watching the watchers — soon.)
Similarly, Mariah Anne Johnson’s “Stone,” a hulking mound fashioned from reflective thermal emergency blankets, resembles a homeless person huddling against the cold.
It’s interesting to note that both of those pieces involve reflective material. So, for that matter, does Bill Wood’s “Square Wave,” which sprouts, like a crop of mirrored pyramids, from a gorgeous terraced garden on I Street. According to curator Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams, who selected the works, that’s no accident. Getting people to notice things — not just the art, she says, but the world around them — is part of the show’s purpose. If it’s necessary to reflect the universe back at them, so be it.
Some of the art hides, almost literally. Veronica Szalus’s installation of plaster-and-cheesecloth orbs, which seem to have popped up, organically, amid someone’s flowers, could be an outbreak of mushrooms — or an invasion of alien garden gnomes. By the same token, Laurel Lukaszewski’s biomorphic ceramic forms appear to have grown out of the ground, or perhaps fallen from the trees.
The pieces in “Sculpted: Histories Revealed” are not always so well integrated into their surroundings. Five small steel sculptures by Dalya Luttwak, inspired by the meandering form of plant roots, are less successful than a similar, much larger piece the artist showed in the 2012 biennial. Still, it’s easy to see why she was invited back. Her subterranean forms are about making the unseen — or the overlooked — visible.
The show officially begins at the southwest corner of New Hampshire Avenue and I Street NW, where a tall sheet-metal piece by Joseph Fischhaber (who works under the name Joe Fish) acts as a welcome sign of sorts. Grab a free printed map of the route while you’re there; they’re also available at every stop along the way.
Evoking Washington artist Jim Sanborn’s well-known series of text-based works — one of which, installed at CIA headquarters, features a coded message — Fish’s “Total Angel Moroni 2” consists of steel panels into which the artist has laser-cut hieroglyphic symbols of his own invention. They form holes in the steel, revealing the landscape behind it.
I have no idea what the words mean, or if, in fact, they are words. Still, they deliver a clear message. It’s hinted at in Fish’s title, an allusion to the celestial being who is said to have given Joseph Smith both the Book of Mormon and the lenses to translate it: Don’t just look at the art — look through it.
Rachel Schmidt’s “Building Aground” references local history, geography, architecture and the environment. Its central form — a life-size plywood rowboat — alludes to the long-forgotten history of Foggy Bottom as a working port on the Potomac River, an area once known as Hamberg or Funkstown (after founder Jacob Funk, who bought up much of the land in the late 18th century).
Seeming to spill from the boat is a pile of miniature buildings. Created from photographs the artist took of area high-rises, this jumble of contemporary condos and apartments offers an oblique commentary on the price of development as well as a winking reminder of the risks of human-influenced climate change.
The boat, it must be noted, has capsized.
— Michael O'Sullivan