Circa 1979, Washington’s artists and punk rockers were spending a lot of time at each other’s places. From the Corcoran to scruffy arts spaces, musicians and artists cohabited and collaborated. Two exhibitions in local galleries evoke that period, one explicitly: It’s titled “Hard Art DC 1979,” after the year and a Logan Circle live-work space that hosted both art and rock. The other is “The Big Payback,” a music-inspired show of abstract paintings by Robin Rose, who at the end of the 1970s was performing with a locally popular band, Urban Verbs.
Rose was a painter even then and has worked for decades in encaustic, which mingles pigment and wax. At one time, his palette was heavily gray, but the colors in “The Big Payback” range from muted to vivid. The Hemphill Fine Arts show is named for the James Brown hit, and the individual paintings for numbers by such musicians as Hank Williams, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart. By titling the pieces after a few of the tuneshe plays while working, the painter notes, he’s paying them back for their motivation. (Brian Eno and Nick Cave are among the younger performers cited; apparently, Rose is unimpressed with the likes of Katy Perry, Lil Wayne and Arcade Fire.)
The artist says he wants his paintings, executed on linen on aluminum panels, to be “familiar” without being literal. Some of them evoke science or industry: “Bat Chain Puller” has a coppery metallic cast, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” resembles an X-ray. Yet other works hint at water or foliage: The circular patterns and deep azure of “Kind of Blue” imply a pond, while the ripples down the blue center of “Natural Woman” could be waves, branches or leaves. There are also art-historical echoes: The circles and spirals of the preponderantly black “Break the Curse” suggest an Adolph Gottlieb canvas drained of color, while the maze-like patterns of the mostly white “Neither Fish nor Fowl” are vaguely fauvist.
Rose emphasizes that he works on one painting at a time and doesn’t move to the next until he’s finished. Yet the pictures feed off one another, and look great together. The show includes a few diptychs and triptychs, whose presence seems to acknowledge that contrasts between the individual works contribute to their appeal. “ ’Round Midnight” places a mostly brown piece, whose heavily worked surface seems positively archaeological, against a darker one; “A Love Supreme” is a fiery trio whose textures recall tie-dye and thrift-shop dresses. Even the white and gray pictures — some of which are untitled hints at Rose’s next direction — offer myriad depths. “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” may not reveal much about Eno, whose music provides the title, but its honeycombed forms provide abundant paths for the eye to follow.
At 10 a.m. on Dec. 10 at Hemphill, Rose will discuss the relationship between music and visual art with Robert Goldstein, his onetime Urban Verbs bandmate, and Bob Boilen, creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” Web site, who in 1979 was a member of local art-punk band, Tiny Desk Unit.
Intensely physical and largely unexpected, the subgenre known as “hardcore” (or “harDCore”) soon upstaged the other punk music being made in the District at the end of the 1970s. The sheer power of it can still be felt in “Hard Art DC 1979,” a selection of photographs by Lucian Perkins at Civilian Art Projects. These black-and-white images concentrate on two bands, the influential yet commercially doomed Bad Brains and the little-remembered Trenchmouth. Just as important in the photos is the audience, which is inches — or less — away from the performers.
Among the ecstatic fans pictured is then-14-year-old Alec MacKaye, who would become a prominent local musician. He wrote the text for the show (and an upcoming book drawn from the same pictures). MacKaye reconnected with Perkins after his now-wife, Lely Constantinople, was hired by the photographer in 1995 to manage his mass of negatives. The display also includes a few shots of the Teen Idles, a band that included Alec MacKaye’s older brother Ian, later of Minor Threat and Fugazi, two D.C. bands whose following is global.
As history, “Hard Art DC 1979” is evocative but far from exhaustive. It captures just a few performances at Hard Art (which was around the corner from what is now the site of the P Street Whole Foods) and Madams Organ (which was near the location of, but entirely different from, the current 18th Street NW bar). There are also images of a singular event: a “Rock Against Racism” show that brought punk from Northwest to the Valley Green Apartments on Wheeler Road SE. You’d never guess from these photos that hardcore bands played on bills with poppier and artier groups, and that Hard Art hosted such coolly minimalist acts as Rhoda and the Bad Seeds more often than white-hot punkers. But photographs capture instants and impressions, not larger contexts.
Perkins was working for The Washington Post in 1979 and remembers struggling to convince the paper that the shots were noteworthy. (He says he was rebuffed by the Metro editor, a guy named Woodward.) A spread of these photos eventually ran in the Sunday magazine. Even people who’ve seen some of them before, however, have never encountered the pictures at this scale. Enlarged to near life-size, or presented in uninterrupted series that have an almost-cinematic quality, the photos are as commanding today as Bad Brains frontman H.R. was then. They almost seem to break the fourth wall between image and observer, just as hardcore crashed the barrier between musician and listener.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Dec. 19 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-234-5601, www.hemphillfinearts.com.
on view through Dec. 31 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW; 202-607-3804; www.civilianartprojects.com.