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Does public sculpture still matter? Local musical wunderkinds Bluebrain set a high bar for public art with “The National Mall” in 2011, a location-aware album that depends on where you and your GPS-enabled smartphone stand. Graffiti and other forms of street art have certainly flourished in the last decade, from Shepard Fairey’s big murals along 14th Street NW to local memester Milbanksy’s splash in the headlines. The Isamu Noguchis and Mark di Suveros of the National Mall are already there; unfortunately, the Joan of Arcs and Mahatma Gandhis aren’t going anywhere, either. Even if sculpture had any good ideas left for public art, the National Park Service’s stranglehold on D.C.’s triangular lawns and park spaces means there are few great places for public sculpture to go.
Foggy Bottom is an unlikely neighborhood for sculptors to mount their last stand—and an even more unlikely part of D.C. to make public art its signature cultural campaign. Nevertheless, every two years, the Foggy Bottom Association launches its Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit. This year’s iteration, the third, is by far the best, thanks to Laura Roulet, an independent curator whose star is rapidly rising in D.C. It very nearly makes public sculpture feel relevant.
One thing public art can do is reveal qualities of a community’s architecture that are easy to overlook—especially the flaws. Foggy Bottom, with its admixture of out-of-the-box modern typologies and nonhistoric townhouses, is easy to overlook altogether. For that reason, the modern two-story building hosting Dalya Luttwak’s “Alfalfa Root at 4.5 Months Old” might consider making the work a permanent addition. A steel tendril—not unlike the vines Luttwak installed last fall on the Kreeger Museum’s unused tennis court—creeps up the façade like toxic-neon kudzu. But “Alfafa Root” feels less like an invasive pest than a part of an ecosystem that’s always been missing.
Some works in the exhibition fit a bit too snuggly. A metal tower called “#286” by brothers John and Joseph Dumbacher scales so well against the housing at the intersection of I Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW that it reads as decorative, whereas their geometric, postminimalist sculptures usually come across as severe. (The piece worked much better at 14th and Q streets NW as part of their show at Curator’s Office last fall.)
Around the corner at 835 25th St.—all 13 sculptures by 15 artists fall within about four square blocks—a piece by Dan Steinhilber loses some of its punch thanks to its setting. Steinhilber, one of the District’s favorite sculptors, has cast a series of snow angels—artworks in keeping with the artist’s always-funny practice. In a gallery setting, it might come across as a playful quotation of performance artist Ana Mendieta, who traced her body in nature and exhibited the documentation; placed in somebody’s front yard, these Steinhilbers lose the performance association. Just because a piece of art can go outside doesn’t mean it should.
Another piece that hardly belongs outside, however, wins the whole show. Patrick McDonough’s “#CR4010 Photo Mural” appears to be familiar, and that’s not a good thing. His photo mural looks like one of those messy Facebook montages: a haphazard map of faces, complete with an obnoxious moniker (in this case, bragging about how art-world Virgos are the best). I don’t know that they’re all Virgos, but several of them (Steinhilber, Maggie Michael, Marissa Long, McDonough himself) are among D.C.’s strongest talents—yet none of their mugs belong on a public mural. Instead, McDonough, working under the name Eh-Co, has turned this alley off 25th Street into his own Facebook wall, playing on the notion of what counts as public and private.
McDonough’s piece is provocative because the results are so visually unattractive—and because public art is not a realm where artists tend to experiment. That’s the great downside to public sculpture: Even when it’s not arrived at by committee, it is frequently so polished and finished that it feels dead on arrival. A vase-shaped cedar sculpture by Foon Sham runs this risk: It’s handsome enough, to the point of being inoffensive. Curator Roulet mitigates this risk by staging video art by Jefferson Pinder and some Craigslist Missed Connections–driven projections by Peter Lee and Blake Turner, pushing the boundaries of what local artists should do when given an opportunity to work outside. Who cares who’s got September birthdays among McDonough’s Facebook friends? Why go big with this kind of tossed-off sketch? That appears to be exactly the point.
There’s another drawback to the Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit: When the show comes down, Foggy Bottom goes back to being Foggy Bottom. Adam Nelson’s biomorphic, bubbled-up transoms, installed over the doorways of three otherwise unremarkable Foggy Bottom homes, work despite the boring façades—maybe even because of them. Pat McGowan’s tower of parking cones, however, doesn’t earn a pass, even though it enlivens another stiff block.
A kind of real-estate flyer box marks every public artwork in the show, so the exhibit works like a scavenger hunt. Some of the works would otherwise be easy to miss. They may be utilitarian, but the boxes bring to mind the truly regrettable aspects of public sculpture: the BIDs and neighborhood associations and other institutional factors that hammer experimental ideas into submission. It’s not the sculptors who have a hard time competing with Bluebrain when it comes to activating the public realm—it’s their institutional patrons.
It could be worse, of course: The show could look like public sculpture.