Sky by Hasan Elahi (2014)
Sky by Hasan Elahi (2014)

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Three sculptures from Jules Olitski’s 2006 “Cyclops” series, the last works the painter made in his lifetime, stand like sentinels outside the Katzen Art Center. Quirky tributes to Olitski’s friendship with British sculptor Anthony Caro, the works have held a constant vigil since 2007, the same year Olitski died. Originally, these monochrome-painted steel sculptures, which look like monstrous abstracted heads, were meant to stay through that year; I hope they never leave. They’re not my favorite outdoor sculptures in D.C. (sorry, fellas), but they enjoy pride of place at the American University Museum—a distinction made all the more special for what’s happening inside the building. I’ve come to rely on them whenever I visit the Katzen.

Danielle O’Steen may know what I’m talking about. She’s the curator for “Brink and Boundary,” a four-artist exhibit currently on view at the museum. The show wrestles with the way that art takes up space physically, virtually, even linguistically and notionally. While this mission has the art in “Brink and Boundary” exploring the nooks and crannies of the building—a closed-off stairwell, the public elevator, and so on—what the show principally reveals is AU’s exhausting approach to exhibiting art.

To understand “Brink and Boundary,” it’s important to know the American University Museum. The institution mounted a staggering 27 exhibits in 2013. Two were MFA shows (gimme exhibits in terms of college museum programming), but many more were original shows, usually mounted by local artists. D.C.’s Patrick McDonough and Baltimore’s Timothy App both enjoyed strong solo shows. There was a retrospective of D.C. artist Andrea Way (there’s almost always a retrospective of some D.C. old-timer). “Washington Art Matters,” the first installment in a sprawling two-part survey, brought together more than 80 local artists’ works. And there were 23 more shows on top of all that.

This ambitious schedule isn’t at all unusual for the American University Museum. In its first three years, the museum—which inaugurated its curvaceous 30,000-square-foot building, designed by EYP Architecture & Engineering, in 2005—put on 68 exhibitions. No other D.C.-area museum does as much in a decade. Does Director Jack Rasmussen ever sleep?

“Brink and Boundary” shies away from the messy, problematic exhibition space. For “Untitled (Portraits),” artist Adam Good has installed a bunch of blue, square-shaped stickers along the windows of a lounge space abutting the Katzen museum store and café. On the stickers, he’s scribbled words and notes drawn from various think pieces on Felix González-Torres—an artist who challenged the strict viewer-artwork barrier by, for example, building giant mounds of candies and inviting viewers to deplete them one by one.

But Good hasn’t activated a quiet space, exactly. The intervention doesn’t come off as planned, because the narrow lounge space is perpetually overlooked by students. (I’ve never seen a soul studying in its reasonably comfortable chairs.) This intervention artwork doesn’t subvert a space used for something else, because this sliver of lobby doesn’t really serve any purpose to begin with.

O’Steen and the artists she’s assembled for “Brink and Boundary”—Halsey Burgund, Hasan Elahi, Alberto Gaitán, and Good—need more participation from the museum’s architecture than they’re getting. The lobby that Good tries to retake for art isn’t good for much, an accident of design sandwiched between the museum atrium and the commercial cubbyholes of the bookstore and café. Halsey Burgund’s piece, which takes the form of a location-enabled mobile app, is designed to play off the glassed-off entryway to the museum building. I wasn’t able to get the app to work on my phone, but no matter. As with Good’s piece, siting Burgund’s piece in the entryway doesn’t do much to reclaim an overlooked museum space for art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art turned its entrance into a glass cube for its “Take it to the Bridge” program; Burgand, on the other hand, is taking visitors out of one nonmuseum space (the doorway) and into another (their mobile phones).

Gaitán’s untitled piece finds better footing. It’s a sound installation that reclaims a fairly cavernous emergency staircase, one closed to the public—a space American University doesn’t want anyone to use—as a sculptural well. Conquered by Gaitán, it works something like the stairway at the Whitney Museum of American Art where, as part of the Whitney Biennial currently on view, there’s another whining piece of white-noise art installed in a stairwell. (Stairwells seem to invite dissonance.) Gaitán’s piece works best as a sculptural installation, one whose wires and speakers explore the off-limits space like tendrils.

Elahi’s “Sky” turns the ceiling of the museum’s elevator into a photographic transparency of a jet flying overhead. And at another museum, the strategy of transforming a service corridor into an exhibition surface might pay off (see, again, the Whitney, where video art is installed in the elevators). But step off the AU elevator into one of the other four exhibitions (unrelated to “Brink and Boundary”) on view in the museum, and you’ll quickly run into another piece by Elahi. At first glance, I took this as a clever act of subversion on O’Steen’s behalf, planting her own flag on another exhibit. That would be crossing boundaries—much in the way that one artist in the Whitney Biennial proposed, as an artwork, re-titling works on view in the permanent collection. (The Whitney rejected the gesture.) Unfortunately, at the Katzen, the two Elahi pieces on view in simultaneous shows is simply a coincidence of poor coordination.

The problem with “Brink and Boundary”—to phrase it in the cerebral terms that this exhibit favors—is that the show problematizes the politically neutral spaces on the fringes of the building while ignoring the ongoing catastrophe inside the museum. Rasmussen might as well hang 10 or 15 or 150 shows per season—all of them, to a one, get lost. Nothing inside this museum gets to breathe; none of the dozens or sometimes hundreds of works that are always hanging on view ever gets the attention it deserves. That’s a factor O’Steen might’ve exploited to her advantage. Instead, “Brink and Boundary” is one more show that’s thwarted by the Katzen.