For its 30th annual survey exhibition, “Options 2011,” the Washington Project for the Arts has temporarily claimed a floor of an industrial building near the Convention Center. The space gives the show — curated by Arlington Arts Center Executive Director Stefanie Fedor — room for large, dramatic pieces, as well as the expected painting, photography and video. The work ranges from computer animation and fabric art — including Amber Robles-Gordon’s third gallery showcase of the last six months — to issues of Bittersweet, a new magazine that covers social issues of non-federal D.C.
Many of the 13 artists combine the minimal and the conceptual. John James Anderson combines sculpture made from lumber, nails, screws and carpentry tools, with commentary about hiring immigrant day laborers to work with him. Stewart Watson impales pillows with steel rods to make site-specific, anxiety-ridden “events.” Lisa Dillin’s photographs and sculptures coolly parody corporate environments and mindsets. Heather Boaz renders the commonplace eerie by photographing toy furniture posed on or near body parts such as eyes and knees, as well as less commonly displayed ones.
Among the show’s most engaging work are monumental pieces that mock artistic monumentality. Artemis Herber is showing shell-like forms that look to be made of rusted steel, evoking the sculptural colossuses of Richard Serra and Anthony Caro, along with pillars whose shapes are modeled on fallen trees (although they’re painted a shade of green that’s more redolent of celery than forests). But Herber’s work is made of cardboard; that rusty patina is paint.
Jimmy Miracle also uses inexpensive materials, including plastic carryout food containers. For “Beam,” he stretches filament from wall to floor to simulate a gleaming shaft of light. Like Herber’s “trees,” Miracle’s pieces give everyday stuff a pretense to glory.
Skeptics of abstract painting joke a non-figurative canvas can be hung any which way, without making an aesthetic difference. Sam Gilliam halfway agrees. The veteran color-field painter knows exactly how he wants his work displayed but that can change. His current exhibition at Marsha Mateyka Gallery includes four pieces, previously shown at the Katzen gallery, that have been hung differently and renamed. “Opened Box A-D” are now “Tempo Series: #1-4.”
It’s been almost 50 years since Gilliam rebelled against the flat, rectangular canvas, and he’s still finding ways to tweak that traditional format. The four 2009-10 “Tempo” paintings, which are acrylic on nylon, are joined here by three new works on canvas, whose colors are less bright and textures more subtle. Where the pigment seems to flow on the nylon, retaining a sense of fluidity, it seeps into the canvas, melding color and form. The earlier paintings are stitched together, so that only the drape can change in different installations; “Tinkerbell’s Bookcase” (composed of four separate pieces) and the knotty “Gordonian” can be arranged and rearranged, theoretically, in infinite variety.
The gallery is also showing, in rotation, two plain old rectangular Gilliam works, “Sea Color” and “Fog Light.” Layering acrylic washes on birch panels, the artist has crafted a seemingly glazed surface that appears closer to ceramics than painting. “Fog Light” glimmers like the artist’s soft nylon “boxes,” but also has the canvas works’ beguiling sense of depth. Painting on a flat surface hasn’t limited Gilliam at all.
With their jagged borders, metallic hues and frequent use of fast-food orange, the sculptural paintings in Eugene Markowski’s “Chroma” look contemporary. But there’s also a medieval, and Slavic, aspect to them. That’s intentional, as the local artist indicates with titles such as “Russian Icon” and “Homage to Andrei Rublev,” a reference to the celebrated 15th-century icon painter. Markowski employs elementary geometric shapes, notably circles, triangles and crosses, that also have religious significance. And his use of shiny gold, silver and copper pigments recalls the days when painters boosted the value of their work by applying metals that were literally precious.
Working with wood and fiberboard, Markowski subverts his orderly geometric motifs and color patterns with torn edges and jutting elements. Whether wall-mounted or free-standing, these assemblages are three-dimensional, boldly hued and sometimes evocative of motion. A few of them seem a little obvious; “Tumbling Squares,” for example, is merely a tidy illustration of its title. But “Chroma,” in which the dominant yellow sets off lines in green, red, orange, and metallic gold, twists and pulsates. Markowski may intend his artworks, like Russian icons, to be objects of meditation. But they’re too vivid and energetic to be serene.
Montserrat House, the latest outpost of the amiable empire linked to ESL Music and Thievery Corporation, is designed to be a party place; its second-floor space includes a bar and a DJ booth. But it also provides an exhibition area for displaced local galleries, including Govinda and Irvine. Montserrat’s first exhibition is the Govinda-organized “This Is Here,” featuring young local photographers Vivienne Foster and Jordan Swartz.
This informal show consists of two suites of photos and other artifacts, simply taped or pinned to the wall. Foster’s array is the more complicated, with postcards, letters and a family genealogy scattered amid the pictures, some of which are black-and-white and partially solarized. Swartz also mixes color and black-and-white, but his photos are all horizontal 3x5s, arranged in a simple grid. Where Foster is partial to baby pictures, Swartz likes funky backroads culture: pinball, ice machines, liquor stores and old-fashioned commercial signage, plus the occasional crucifix hung on an ancient TV. The idea of both selections — you are what you look at — is valid. But the personal aspect of the two photographers’ work seldom seems more than simply anecdotal.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Oct. 29 at Washington Project for the Arts, 629 New York Ave. NW, second floor. 202-234-7103. www.wpadc.org.
on view through Oct. 29 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW. 202-328-0088. www.marshamateykagallery.com.
on view through Oct. 22 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW. 202-232-8734. www.studiogallerydc.com.