Becca Kallems work Tilling
Becca Kallems work Tilling

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It was the day the goldfish died. Late in May 2008, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs shuttered a sculpture show in an unused warehouse on 14th Street NW; the building’s owners hadn’t acquired the proper permits to host people inside. During the week and a half or so that the show was open, “Here & Now” showcased experimental, unmonumental sculpture and rough-edged art, including one installation featuring goldfish, many of which didn’t make it out alive.

Here today, gone tomorrow. The warehouse space, once the Church of the Rapture and, before that, an auto showroom, is now Room & Board. Transformer, the nonprofit art incubator that organized the show, still calls Logan Circle home, but today, a guerrilla sculpture exhibition on 14th Street would be unthinkable, absent some sort of luxe millennial branding campaign.

“Here & Now” stands up as a classic in D.C. gallery history and a bellwether of change on 14th Street. But that was then. “Tilling Phase,” a pop-up exhibition curated by local artist Amy Hughes Braden, is right here and right now—or right there, in Hyattsville, anyway. Like the Transformer show, this group exhibition is a survey of casualist artworks, mostly installation, that doubles as a statement on where art in the city is heading.

“Tilling Phase” stars a roster of up-and-coming District artists. For “150805-scrap pile (theaster gates),” Patrick McDonough salvaged renovation materials from his house and stacked them in a sculpture-ish configuration 69 inches high, the same height as Theaster Gates, a Chicago artist and the pope of social-practice art. Becca Kallem, one of the hardest-working creators in D.C., assembled her own mini-show of shapes and squiggles, including “Painting Strands,” a string of old paintings hanging on a thread like pennant flags. Kallem’s careful array of grids (and one Red Cross piece in particular) brings to mind Kazimir Malevich’s legendary Petrograd installation of Suprematist paintings in 1915 (“Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10”). “Tilling Phase” runs long on new names worth knowing, including Chanel Compton, Joseph Orzal, and Rodrigo Carazas Portal.

Site matters in this site-specific show. “Tilling Phase” occupies two floors and a greenhouse of a former florist shop, a spacious stand-alone structure that wouldn’t fit along any of the D.C. commercial corridors where galleries usually operate. Art Works Now, a nonprofit devoted to art and education, will soon share the space with a Pizzeria Paradiso. (Change is coming for Hyattsville, too.) Amy Hughes Braden works for Art Works Now, and she’s included in “Tilling Phase” a piece by Rikki Moses, a teenage artist who is autistic and a participant in the program.

Informal art rules here, and the space itself is so raw that it’s hard to tell where a discrete work ends and general disorder begins. “Fun in the Sun,” an installation by Aaron Hughes, is a piece of beach towel cut to fit a rectangular slot in the wall’s wood paneling. The piece reads like a painting; the jury’s out on whether an electrical outlet dangling from the paneling is an accidental component of the installation, or just that much more ambient fun.

Aaron Hughes, who is Amy Hughes Braden’s brother, has several other works in the show. So does Alex Braden, her husband. She’s also selected her own work for the show, too. In a more formal setting, this kind of lowercase-n nepotism might raise eyebrows, but the show feels so DIY and communal that it’s hard to get worked up about it. Also, Amy’s family makes good work.

“Nickel Ride (Why Don’t You Do Right)” by Alex Braden is one of the standouts of this show. The piece is a metal drum with a few loose bolts attached to the top. Inside is a speaker playing just the bass from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; outside is a speaker playing Peggy Lee standards, including “Why Don’t You Do Right” and “The Nickel Ride.” When K-Dot’s bass kicks in, the barrel erupts in noise. The savage din is a metaphor for the police-department practice that is alleged to have killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (Brutal “rough rides” or “nickel rides” happen when police throw bound suspects into vans without seatbelts or any other constraints.) While lord only knows what’s happening inside Braden’s metal drum, the jazz tunes trill away, blissfully unaware that anything is wrong.

“Y2K 2.0,” a video installation by Flower Boyz, is one of the missteps of the show, a barely rewarmed Nam June Paik. The line between minimalist and pointless is a thin one, but an untitled composition by Kunj—featuring twigs, a half-empty water jug, and a candle—is on the wrong side of it. Then there are the handful of stellar departures from the unmonumental theme. A pair of photos by Chandi Kelley (“Gold Leaf” and “Aureate”) look far too fine to show beside so many mutts from the wrong side of the tracks. Kelley’s photos work in this context—they shine, they excel—because they evoke the myth of the Golden Bough, which is the key to the underworld in The Aeneid. Marissa Long’s “Forever Melon,” another photo print, also conflates death and life, mineral and animal, the sacred and the profane.

If Long and Kelley’s photos convey poetic grace, Aaron Hughes is the goat-lord chuckling in Hades. His barely-there gestures include “Oscar,” a stand-up circulating fan doing its thing in a small broom closet while Tchaikovsky plays. Hughes, whose garbage-art sculptures are also currently on view at Nomunomu, a house venue in LeDroit Park, seems to be working with whatever’s at hand and throwing ideas out to see what sticks. Like a Crass record, this work is gritty, pacifist, flippant, anti-capitalist, and naïve. His sculptures badly need editing, but their enthusiasm is contagious.

Casualism in the vein of Hughes’ works has a bad name in the art world. Sharon Butler, a painter and critic who may deserve credit for coining the term, describes casualist painting as “passive-aggressive” and “incomplete” in a “studied” manner. She was writing about paintings that sell for thousands of dollars in top-tier New York galleries; the same can’t be said for unmonumental works by young D.C. artists. I wonder if they turn to casualist strategies less by choice and more by circumstance.

Or maybe it’s imitation. Whatever the reason, it’s out there, and Amy Hughes Braden has tapped a diverse selection of young artists to make the case that it’s relevant, even urgent, in D.C. It’s mostly convincing. There’s another case that “Tilling Phase” makes with conviction: Today’s most interesting work is happening outside city limits.

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