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“Resolutions” is the right name for a January group art show. Artists might read it as a challenge: Show an artwork from the last year that hints at what’s coming next. But at Civilian Art Projects, “Resolutions 2015” says more about the gallery’s ambitions than any of the individual artists in the show.
“Resolutions 2015” is Civilian’s third show since director Jayme McLellan teamed up with G Fine Art director Annie Gawlak to put two art galleries into one big space. Alternating exhibits month to month, G and Civilian have figured out a way to host some of the best recent art shows in the city from their perch in 16th Street Heights. This latest exhibit proves that Civilian means to keep up that pace.
“Tête a Tête” is a piece that pushes everyone—the artist, the gallery, the viewer—forward. It’s a video work by Brandon Morse, a local artist who was represented by Connersmith for several years before that program shuttered its Trinidad gallery last summer. Video is a term that can only be loosely pinned to Morse’s piece: It’s a generative animation that the artist created in Cinder, a C++ programming library (a medium I don’t understand). “Tête a Tête” reads like video, though. And also painting. And also sculpture.
There isn’t anything else like Morse’s work happening in D.C. (or anywhere, really). The snowy black-and-white video shows two urchin-like forms orbiting one another. It’s abstract but alive, hard-edged, techno-organic. The video’s background—it’s only a background in the sense that it’s a contrasting plane that creates the illusion of three-dimensional space—is a set of tiles that look like different pictures of the surface of some cold lunar body. The forms circle each other like bit-storms or data-clusters, paying supreme homage to the globalized, network-y abstractions of painter Julie Mehretu and the hair-fine, minimalist installations of sculptor Eva Hesse. Yet “Tête a Tête” is a work built in code.
My hope is that Morse resolves to make more, show more, and (especially) collaborate more in 2015. As much as I enjoy seeing his work on a gallery wall, his art—his approach to art—could help to fill the gap between artists and technologists. In New York, the digital-art organization Rhizome serves this need in part by hosting a conference called Seven by Seven, which brings art and tech people together for a few days to hammer out and present new projects. Nothing like that exists in D.C., despite all the crowing from the Smithsonian Institution about digitization or the boasts from former Mayor Vincent Gray about D.C.’s status as a tech hub.
Other works in “Resolutions 2015” are more traditional, though they shouldn’t be faulted for that fact. Jason Falchook is represented in the show by works that aren’t much different from what he’s shown before, but no matter: He is one of the strongest colorists showing work in the area today. Frank DiPerna’s contributions are more perplexing. His photographs have always struck me as deeply and satisfyingly weird, from his twisted still-lifes to his landscape photos of commercial murals and billboards. It’s possible to see his influence across an entire generation of D.C. photographers. (DiPerna has taught at the Corcoran College of Art + Design since 1972.) Yet his two works on view at Civilian, from 2008 and 2011, just don’t look much like DiPerna—they’re more like something one of his students might turn in.
Bridget Sue Lambert has the most to gain from “Resolutions,” but also the longest odds. She builds her artworks from dollhouse furniture, an improbably crowded field (Denise Tassin and Corinne May Botz are just two artists who show art in D.C. and work from a similar vibe). For her works in the show, from 2013, Lambert paired photos of her dollhouse tableaux with screengrabs of iPhone text messages. The texts are ambiguous (“Home…”) but they read like dispatches someone might send after a polite OkCupid date. Although the source material here is rich, the works already look dated, and each text is tacked on to the mise-en-scène like an afterthought.
The eight photos in Ken Ashton’s 2014 “Van Ness” series in “Resolutions” break from the artist’s straightforward documentary-photo approach through a grid system. Images in “Van Ness #14” have been laid out in a cross shape; in “Van Ness #3,” that shape looks like a funky Tetris block. All of the photos are small (the prints are only 8”x10”), requiring that the viewer get in close. The experimentation here is visually striking but compositionally timid: Ashton’s only put one toe in the water where he should be diving head-first into using scale in new ways.
Ryan Hill is one of just a handful of longtime D.C. artists whose work looks like it truly belongs in Los Angeles. His untitled gouache painting of cats in “Resolutions 2015” reminds me of just about every David Hockney painting that I’ve ever seen. If I could, I’d resolve to see more of his work to see if I’m right about his West Coast tendencies.
Seeing more of Hill’s work, or more of any D.C. artist’s work, is going to be tougher in 2015. The number of art galleries dedicated to showing local artists here has dwindled in recent years, and some dealers have had to make compromises to keep showing work in D.C., whether that’s leaving a permanent physical space (like Andrea Pollan of Curator’s Office) or going halfsies on one (like McLellan and Gawlak). So I hope that someone takes note of what McLellan is doing—making it work, by hook or by crook—and follows suit. It can’t be up to her to lift up D.C.’s art scene single-handedly. Even if that appears to be her New Year’s resolution.
4718 14th St. NW. Free. civilianartprojects.com