Max Hirshfeld, One Shot: Philip Barlow, archival inkjet print, 2005
Max Hirshfeld, One Shot: Philip Barlow, archival inkjet print, 2005

Politics are usually unavoidable in D.C., and in 2008 especially many of the offerings in local galleries and museums skewed sharply political. And yet, mirroring a larger trend, cynicism seemed to shed as the election grew closer, leading to the optimistic “Portraits of Power” show at the Corcoran and the magic touch of Shepard Fairey, who could not have chosen a more perfect spot for his Obama mural on 14th and U Streets NW. Even many of the shows that directly avoided politics were less bitingly ironic and more earnest: the retro charm of Kendall Messick’s “The Projectionist,” the masculine swagger of Hillyer’s “My Name Is Jason,” and the unabashed adoration for collector Philip Barlow in “15 for Philip,” a homage to a D.C. art patron. Below, 10 highlights from the year.

“15 for Philip,” Curator’s Office

It’s practically a given that you’ll run into Philip Barlow during a typical Saturday-night slate of art openings: The local collector and patron attends almost every show, and his height and long hair make him impossible to miss. Beloved by artists and curators alike, Barlow himself was the subject of a show in January and February at Curator’s Office, which enlisted local artists to create works based on Barlow’s personality and legacy. Part praise and part roast, the show included some serious portraits of Barlow sitting in a darkened theater, or in his home surrounded by his art, while others chose a humorous route. Jeff Spaulding constructed a tower of Lego hair that measured up to Barlow’s height, while Amanda Kleinman of local band the Apes composed a song for Barlow with the lyrics, “For some D.C. artists, he’s the only chance/To sell some work so you can buy new pants.”

“The Cinema Effect: Dreams,” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

One reason “The Cinema Effect: Dreams” was so perfect for the Hirshhorn was the building’s circular shape, which contributed to the meaning of the show. The first of the two-part series, “Dreams” was a trip through the sleep cycle: gentle drifting off, deep unconsciousness, pleasant dreams, nightmares, and nearing wakefulness that brought viewers right back to the beginning, like an REM cycle. The exhibits captured a sense of something impossible—the ability to be a voyeur into another person’s subconscious.

“My Name Is Jason,” Hillyer Art Space

Two friends who share a first name joined forces to become the Jasons, a moniker that sounds like it could be for a crime-fighting duo or an indie-rock band. Instead it’s a collaboration between a young poet and a painter who began working together at the University of Maryland. Jason Reynolds, the poet, evokes twentysomething dudeliness in some of the words he contributes to Jason Griffin’s graffiti-inspired images. Art? Art. displays a rapid-fire dialogue: “Gas? Sh*t.” “Horny? Uh-Huh.” “Hungry? Chips.” When they tone down the swagger, the Jasons’ art-poetry combo is clever and lovely in its simplicity, especially in this verse: “I like to think my poems/are like picnic potato chips/lightly salted slices/0of heaven/but there’s always/a few burnt ones/in the bag/this is one of those.”

“In Between,” Randall Scott Gallery

Julia Fullerton-Batten finds beauty in the frenetic energy of teenage girls who have, over the course of the photographer’s career, become increasingly less grounded. In “In Between,” Fullerton-Batten’s teens are shown jumping, kicking, and falling, sometimes in ways that appear death-defying. But what teenager has never felt invincible? Caught in dreamlike settings between sky and ground, childhood and adulthood, Fullerton-Batten’s work in this show at Randall Scott in September was a continuation of her exploration of girlhood psyches, from cliques and fitting in to growth spurts and ugly ducklings. Now that her girls are working their way through teen angst and rebellion, will they grow up? Hopefully, Fullerton-Batten won’t.

“Akemi Maegawa,” Irvine Contemporary

For Japanese-born Akemi Maegawa, it’s all about the egg. The American breakfast staple is referred to in her native language as “medama,” or “fried eyeball,” says Maegawa, who learned the phrase “sunny side up” when she came to the United States. The phrase appealed to her because the sun is a symbol of Japan, and she began to imagine the fried egg as the origin of her homeland. The spotlight of Maegawa’s show “Invisible, Inc.” at Irvine Contemporary was a large furry egg used for sitting and meditating in the middle of the gallery. But beyond that, the artist turned a critical eye to art and commercialization, adding Yen, Euro, and dollar signs to ceramic bottles to spell out ¥€$ and making gallery tags for miniature artworks larger than life. Maegawa’s pop-kitsch aesthetic was appealing, as was her art’s interactivity—who could resist meditating on a giant fried egg, after all? It was a fine place to sit and think about Maegawa’s conceptual predecessors, and her definition of the art object.

“Regime Change Starts at Home,” Irvine Contemporary

This was easily the most popular art opening of the year, thanks to the star power of Shepard Fairey, whose presence necessitated the use of security guards to control traffic flow through Irvine’s densely packed, barely breathable space. Fairey’s Obama posters brought him fame, if not fortune—he donated the proceeds from any Obama-related sales to the campaign. In the weeks leading up to the election and the opening of his show, unauthorized “Obey” posters and stickers began popping up all around the Logan Circle area, until Fairey himself arrived to execute authorized ones. Specifically, street murals in several locations, most famously the one on 14th and U Streets NW that became the backdrop for the massive celebration on election night. Al Farrow and DJ Spooky rounded out the show with worthy environmental and war-themed works that wound up overshadowed by Fairey’s political prestige.

“Remake,” G Fine Art

It was a banner year for political art in D.C., but no piece was more subversive than Ivan Navarro’s The Missing Monument for Washington, DC. Navarro, originally from Chile, honored Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who died during his country’s United States–supported military coup. That video and other sculptures (in collaboration with Courtney Smith) borrowed imagery of hooded prisoners on their knees from the torture at Abu Ghraib, while Kitchen Sink, a mixed-media installation on the gallery floor, used an optical illusion to suggest a bottomless hole. Shepard Fairey, he isn’t.

“The Projectionist,” Hemphill Fine Arts

It was hard not to be charmed by Kendall Messick’s photos of an old man named Gordon Brinckle, the titular projectionist of Hemphill’s show. Brinckle, Messick’s childhood neighbor, built a nine-seat homemade movie theater in his basement, and in photos of him tending to it, he looks like a comical giant. Every photo with a screen is a clear homage to Hiroshi Sugimoto, who was the subject of a concurrent exhibition at Hemphill, but it was Messick’s rich photographs, and the breadth of Brinckle’s personality (in a film about his life, he refers to his projectors as “the girls”) that carried the show.

“Here & Now,” Transformer

“Here & Now” was more than an art exhibit—it was a battle between developers and curators, gentrification and originality, and goldfish and starvation. Director Victoria Reis procured the former Church of the Rapture building on 14th and T Streets NW for the show, which brought in 17 young artists for site-specific works. Some, like Mandy Burrow, made art from the debris found in the building itself. Others, like Derek Cote, incorporated the building’s deficiencies into their piece—Cote was forced to channel leaking water away from his installation and found that the sound of the running water enhanced the work. But if you saw it at all, you were lucky—the show remained open for only a few days before it was shut down by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs due to unsafe conditions in the building, including 65 fire-code violations. No one was allowed to enter the building after those violations were discovered, which presented a problem for Kyan Bishop and Kate Hardy. Their piece, Near Distant Past, incorporated live goldfish in wall-hung tanks, and with nobody to tend to them for days, many of the fish didn’t make it. The building as an art space didn’t make it either. Developers will soon remake it as a furniture store.

“Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power,” Corcoran Gallery of Art

It’s as if Richard Avedon had a premonition: Shortly before his death, the photographer took photos of a then little-known junior senator from Illinois for his “Democracy” series. That series (which John McCain never had the honor of sitting for) provides the final image of the Corcoran’s “Portraits of Power,” a retrospective of Avedon’s political and celebrity photography. In the context of the show, it carries greater meaning—after all, it follows a series of photos of old white men who have held some of our country’s most important offices. Subtler than “Regime Change Starts at Home,” “Portraits of Power” showed us how far we’ve come—and how far we have yet to go.