Poet, teacher and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis lives in Brooklyn, but he grew up on D.C.’s east side, where go-go’s syncopated rhythm is the community’s heartbeat. His photographs of musicians and fans are collected in “(Un)Lock It: the Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket,” a Gallery at Vivid Solutions exhibition that also includes three 20- to 30-minute performance videos and a few of those day-glo, block-letter placards (printed by Baltimore’s Globe Posters) that used to publicize go-go concerts. The photos are from the artist’s upcoming “The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C.”
This is not a historical exhibition. Most of the photographs were taken in the past few years, with the oldest dating to 2007. But if go-go is no longer the force it was in the 1980s, that’s not obvious from these images, which show the beat reverberating everywhere, from church — a minister holds a “Go-Go 4 God” poster — to the Washington Monument grounds. The range of styles is broad: Ellis shoots in both color and black-and-white, mixes candid shots with posed ones and even includes an arty double exposure. But the effect is unified because the music holds them all together, much the way go-go’s “pocket” — its fluid, inclusive groove — melds performers and listeners into a communal whole.
Indeed, the most interesting part of the show is behind the main gallery, where a hallway has been designated the “roll call wall.” The reference is to the way go-go performers such as E.U.’s Sugar Bear announce the various people and neighborhoods represented at a concert. The smaller-format photos on these walls literally belong to the crowd: People who see themselves in a photo can take it. That’s not just a generous touch. It’s a concrete way of representing what still images can’t quite convey: that go-go belongs to its audience.
The fifth annual “East of the River” juried group exhibition, at historic Anacostia’s Honfleur Gallery, features “artists rooted in Wards 7 and 8.” In other words, don’t necessarily expect work that addresses the political concerns of Washington’s most neglected neighborhoods. These artists, all but one of them photographers, take a personal and often intimate approach.
The exception, in both form and content, is Jonathan Edwards. His political cartoons bristle at uptight white gentrifiers and condescending Teach for America recruits. These drawings are impassioned but not really designed for gallery walls; they would be more at home on newsprint.
Much of the other work is abstract or way out of town, with photographs made in places as distant (psychically and geographically) as Asia and the American West. Marlon Norman, whose nature shots emphasize light and moisture, studied at ARCH Training Center, a Honfleur neighbor. But Jon Malis is a student at American University, on the other side of town. His connection to Southeast Washington is that his seemingly abstract photographs (also featured in Conner Contemporary’s most recent show, “Academy 2011”) show slides of brain tissue collected long ago at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Made in Kenya, the Philippines and New York City, Deborah Terry’s large-format photos are austere yet lush, heavy on gray and black yet luminous. Using long exposures and sometimes shooting from elevated trains, she blurs the distance between seeing and dreaming. Her work has sweep, but close-ups are one of the exhibition’s motifs. Norman often focuses on a bit of a larger vista, and Lark Catoe-Emerson’s close views of imperfect skin turn veins, blotches and wrinkles into landscapes.
Danielle Scruggs also shoots tightly, rendering herself in off-kilter, black-and-white closeups printed on Mylar banners. But she’s interested in context as well as image, so she has surrounded the oblique self-portraits with text. These are phrases spoken to her, she writes, “in the street, in the office or in the bedroom.” This work is as introspective as any in the show, but by adding the dialogue she’s made it the most political as well.
One link between the three young, local artists featured in “Delusions of Grandeur: Ascension” is African American identity. Another is fabric. Amber Robles-Gordon (whose work was reviewed by The Post in July) makes abstract hanging assemblages that feature ribbons and scraps. Jamea Richmond-Edwards does idealized portraits that incorporate textiles, sequins and bows. Shaunte Gates includes bits of cloth and other found materials in allegorical paintings that draw on the tradition of biblically themed medieval and Renaissance canvases, but also sometimes suggest the heroic poses of sci-fi and comic-book characters.
The artists chose the exhibition’s title, and in a statement explain that it refers to “the ‘delusions of grandeur’ that each artist possesses in order to continue progressing . . . in their artwork.” The “ascension” part comes from one of Gates’s paintings, which depict muscular men who are both divine and debased, as likely to sprout wings as to wear to a crown of barbed wire. His figures are rendered realistically, as are some of his settings, notably the urban alley shown in “January 6, 1956: Time Traveler.” But other backdrops are wilder, sometimes verging on abstract expressionism. “May 28, 2004: Lost One” shows a man plunging into a loosely rendered whirlpool, as if diving into the picture plane itself.
Richmond-Edwards’s work is more formal. Faces, penciled in shades of gray, combine African American features with the somber bearing of Greco-Roman sculpture. Many of the countenances are identical, giving the work a paper-doll quality. These visages are surrounded by bright colors and patterns, and adorned with a rose-petal print in various colors. If the result seems a little too fashion-schooled, clothing is a part of cultural identity. Playing dress-up is one way that people define, or redefine, themselves.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Oct. 7 at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, 202-365-8392. Saturday at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW, 202-347-2787, www.vividsolutionsdc.com.
on view through Sept. 16 at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Rd. SE, 202-536-8944, www.honfleurgallery.com.
on view through Sept. 16 at Parish Gallery-Georgetown, 1054 31st St. NW, 202-944-2310,