For Washingtonians whohaven’t regularly prowled local galleries over the past year, here’s a chance to catch up. The Washington Project for the Arts’ annual auction, dubbed “Select,” happens March 3, and until then the available work is on display on the lower level of the former Borders store at 18th and L streets NW. The array is not designed as a comprehensive overview of the current Washington art scene, but it’s a pretty good one nonetheless.
Chosen by eight curators, plus the WPA board, “Select” includes works by about 100 artists. Many of them are local or have a local connection (although there are ringers from as far away as Moscow). The participants include such well-established figures as William Christenberry (a screen print of battered cans, as well as an unexpected abstract drawing), Dan Steinhilber (an abstract “painting” made of mulched plastic bags) and Leo Villareal (a shifting, LED-generated red “sky” inside a plexiglass box).
The art is grouped by the curators who picked it, which makes for some interesting affinities. The work selected by Seth Adelsberger, for example, tends to be brightly colored, mixed media and on paper. Overall, though, the assortment is as diverse as the local art scene, in form and theme. There’s plenty of abstraction but just as much representation, and the latter ranges from Muriel Hasbun’s eerie photo of a boy with stuffed cats to Lisa Ryan’s portrait of a young, gun-toting Michael Caine.
There are, of course, views of our town, both federal (Lilly Valle’s “Trifecta” of monumental structures) and funky (Billy Colbert and Ken Ashton’s “The Reinvestigation of a Neighborhood,” a collaged tour of pre-gentrified Shaw). Komar and Melamid riff on historical imagery with “The Great Seal,” featuring our first president, while Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, tweaks militaristic patriotism with “Manifesto for the People’s Republic of Antarctica, Poster One,” featuring belligerent penguins.
But Miller (a New Yorker who grew up in the District) is no more typical of “Select” than Amber Robles-Gordon, who contributes two of her hanging-fabric abstractions. There may not be something here for everyone, but that’s not because the selected artists are all grimly conforming to one or two dogmatic -isms.
The Latin maxim “ars longa, vita brevis” — art is long, life is short — doesn’t seem to apply in this age of temporary installations and flickering video images. One provocative exception is Patricia Cronin’s “Memorial to a Marriage,” a nearly life-size bronze tomb sculpture that depicts Cronin and her life partner (and fellow artist) Deborah Kass in perpetual embrace. Cronin calls the work’s style “19th-century American neoclassical sculpture”; it was inspired by such famed precursors as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial for Marian Hooper Adams, erected in 1891 in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery.
When the first, smaller version of the sculpture was finished in 2002, it was in part a protest against Cronin and Kass’s inability to wed. That’s still a raw issue nationally, but a decade later same-sex marriage is legal in both New York, where they live, and Washington. Like life, political battles can be shorter than expected. (Cronin and Kass are now married.)
Politics aside, “Memorial to a Marriage” challenges Victorian aesthetics with its lack of solemnity. It depicts the two women nude, although partially shrouded by sheets, and animatedly intertwined. The name of this four-piece Conner Contemporary exhibition is “Bodies and Soul,” and Cronin depicts soul mates as being body mates as well. The show includes two watercolors (secluded in the gallery’s office) that are unabashedly erotic. Rendered in bronze, the women’s physical intimacy feels a little less immediate yet still palpable. Cronin’s sculpture is a rare example of a memorial that’s more about life than its loss.
It’s common practice for artists to redo other people’s work, whether in the spirit of homage or mockery. That’s what Ian Whitmore does, except that the artist he remodels is himself. The pictures in his “A Devil, the Shadow, the Notice of a Small Falling Leaf,” at G Fine Art, are doubly diverse. Not only does Whitmore work in various styles, but he often returns to a long-ignored painting to complete it in a different mode than he began.
A George Washington University graduate who moved to Brooklyn in 2008, Whitmore takes perverse inspiration from radical 16th-century Protestant reformer Andreas Karlstadt, the source of the show’s wordy title. Karlstadt considered religious paintings and sculpture idolatrous and wanted them removed from churches. Whitmore’s goal isn’t religious, but he seeks the iconoclasts’ boldness to destroy art — even if it’s only his own.
This process, which Whitmore calls “detuning,” makes for some lively contrasts. “Grey Gardens” is half realist rendering of a classical building, half abstract-expressionist freakout. The punning “Short Trip” subverts the tradition of the sacred triptych by assembling three unrelated canvases. The book-size “My Copy” is designed to look as if the artist has painted over a real tome; its title, barely visible, includes the phrase “master forger.”
There’s a crucifix in one of these pictures, but Whitmore is just as a likely to refer to science as to theology. One canvas shows a rocket blasting off (among other things); another is modeled on early 20th-century industrial efficiency studies. “Keyhole,” painted on a jaggedly shaped canvas, is derived from photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; it plays on the way the telescope’s finished photos are edited and composited from many individual shots. One of the strangest and most striking pieces in the show, “Keyhole” is a rare case in which Whitmore tries to find, rather than lose, a coherent image.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through March 2 at 1801 L St. NW; 202-234-7103; www.wpadc.org.
on view through March 10 at Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave NE; 202-588-8750; www.connercontemporary.com.
on view through March 10 at G Fine Art, 1350 Florida Ave. NE; 202-462-1601; www.gfineartdc.com.