Patrick McDonough, White
Patrick McDonough, White

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On Sept. 11, 2003, the New York Times published a proposal for Lower Manhattan’s 9/11 memorial that had arrived by mail in the form of a collage. Designed by artist Ellsworth Kelly, it was an image of striking elegance: an aerial photograph of Ground Zero that Kelly had clipped from the Times, to which he had added a minimalist green polygon shape representing a simple mound of grass. Kelly’s memorial design is not the one that opened to visitors on Sept. 12, 2011, but it depicted a view shared by some: that no structure should have replaced the footprints of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Ellsworth Kelly is a name that comes up when D.C. conceptual artist Patrick McDonough discusses his latest project, the second in a series that he calls “white turf painting actions.” Over the course of 30 hours last weekend, McDonough painted an empty grass lot in Anacostia white by using turf paint, the kind used to stripe a football field. Part of the Lumen8 arts festival, McDonough’s piece is a performance that, much like Kelly’s proposal, uses the language of minimalism to illuminate the changing urban environment.

There’s nothing special about the plot of land McDonough picked. The parcel is promising real estate, located along Shannon Place SE between V and W streets just one block from Anacostia’s famous Big Chair, with views of the Washington Monument and Nationals Park. But as it is now—a vacant lot that stands in the shadow of a building that houses the D.C. Taxicab Commission and the D.C. Lottery—it’s a plot that only a developer could love.

That cold featurelessness is perhaps the quality that led McDonough to approach Curtis Brothers, the owners of the vacant and other nearby properties, for permission to paint over the field with 250 gallons of Pioneer Athletics Ultra Friendly Brite Stripe field-marking paint. Brite Stripe is an EPA-recognized field paint that emits no volatile organic compounds, so McDonough’s not hurting anything—except maybe himself, seeing as how he spent the better part of a late-July weekend outside, using a household roller brush to paint over more than 10,000 square feet of weeds.

It’s an endurance performance for both McDonough and the viewer: There’s no reward in watching McDonough doing manual labor in the way there is in, say, sitting face to face with the immortal Marina Abramović. McDonough, a young and consistent artist, has made every effort to strip his work of ornamentation. Neither this vacant lot nor the part of Rosslyn’s Gateway Park that he painted white during the recent SuperNOVA performance art festival provides a very splashy visual. It’s a lot of effort for subtle ends.

McDonough appears to delight in deliberately tweaking the most overlooked parts of the built environment. His practice, which also includes creating awnings, usually requires the participation of building owners or property developers. McDonough paints the lot that nobody notices; he builds an awning that people will look right past once it’s complete—and only after knocking down the doors of uninterested owners for permission . (They often reject his intensive and pointless-seeming gestures.) McDonough is disrupting something, though it’s not always clear what that something is.

That’s the trick: McDonough’s work, in fact, registers a vote of confidence that minimalist and conceptual artworks, even the most cerebral intervention, can make a difference—without any dip in formal integrity. McDonough’s “White Turf Painting Action,” which coincides with the broader Lumen8 festival taking place in Anacostia through Aug. 10, illustrates the faith that developers are placing in art as a driver for new commerce to the neighborhood. McDonough is getting right down to the point by painting the property itself.

One of my favorite parts of McDonough’s “White Turf Painting Action” project is a rendering he made to illustrate the concept before he ever got started. It looks like an architectural rendering, with a figure standing on a field holding what might be a rake—but over the tool’s head and much of the field, McDonough’s whited everything out. It’s a collage that conveys a big concept through a single stroke.

Next, if he can get approval from the National Park Service, McDonough would like to paint over every triangle-shaped park in the District—which could, in a single stroke, do more than a conference’s worth of urbanists to demonstrate the wasted cumulative opportunity that these “parks” represent. It’s a proposal that Ellsworth Kelly might endorse.