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

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Philip Barlow is not surprised that anybody would want to stare at him. At a busy gallery opening recently, I jokingly asked if he’d be free for some face time the next night. He consented casually: After all, a lot of people have given the local arts patron some long hard looks. The 15 artists who contributed to “15 for Philip” have given serious thought to his visage, though Barlow doesn’t have the sort of mug that usually inspires portraits: His cherubic profile features no Gallic nose or sharp cheekbones. Artists choose to examine him because, as a devoted collector of D.C.-based artists, his efforts directly affect them. Most of the work in the show, commissioned by co-curators Ian Jehle and Linda Hesh, is quite decent, though it often doesn’t arrive at the typical insights that portraiture strives for. Instead of speaking to who Barlow is, the works focus on what he does.

As Barlow himself declares in the show, “Some of them are not so directly portrait-y.” That commentary is part of the show’s least portrait-y, and least direct, piece: Alberto Gaitán’s sound installation Barlow’s Phonemes. The piece is essentially a prank call. Gaitán calls Barlow, speaking imperceptably into the receiver before Barlow hangs up. After a few rounds of this, the caller claims to be from the Washington Times. Barlow isn’t bothered that someone from the sports desk is asking him dimwitted questions at work; he’s happy to hold the reporter’s hand, explaining what portraiture means and how it feels to be a subject. Nor is he bothered by the bizarre sounds coming from the other end of the line—explosions, animal howls. “The more people writing about art, the better,” says Barlow, unfazed.

By the end of the track, Gaitán is working territory that’s more familiar to him as a sound artist—the piece becomes a garble of Barlow’s nasal vocals, built out of a mishmash of consonants and vowels the artist spliced together after the calls. But the early portion of the piece captures two of Barlow’s qualities. One is his aplomb; the collector really can’t be provoked. Another is his naked enthusiasm for art.

But a piece that tweaks Barlow a little is better suited to him than outright flattery. Eric Powell’s untitled photograph of Barlow at home, relaxing on a couch as he reads a glossy magazine, is too fashion-forward for the man—he looks too much like the serious éminence grise, even if he is barefooted. Barlow doesn’t frequent the pages of Washingtonian or other local style mags, though he fits their criteria—he has a distinct look, an unusual hobby, and disposable income. Max Hirshfeld’s photograph of Barlow is more down-to-earth: He’s wearing a sandstone suit and a lopsided tie on an unbuttoned collar. He projects slack, perhaps too much slack for anybody older than 28; he looks more goofily arranged than casually tousled.

There are other portraits that are more direct about Barlow, but they’re not necessarily more evocative. A photo by Linda Hesh is the least successful of the bunch. In characteristic fashion, she stages a commercial-type photo of the sitter—think Sears Portrait Studio—and digitally alters it. She reworks Barlow’s image by giving his eyes raccoonlike magenta and lime tints and dabbing his lips in cyan. The use of primary colors is straightforward, even didactic: Yes, Barlow sees and talks art. Fine, but it’s difficult not to notice how much more insightful Hesh’s portrait might have been had she not clowned up her subject. Without the digital fussing, she had a commercial portrait of an advocate whose interaction with art happens primarily through commerce.

Other portraits include Barlow’s girlfriend, Lisa Gilotty, which is a reasonable approach: She co-collects with him and usually joins him at openings and lectures. Colby Caldwell’s Twin {separate} (for Philip and Lisa) pays homage to the couple in diptych prints featuring the words “only” and “connect,” referencing a phrase in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. It’s a sweet sentiment, but an homage isn’t a portrait. We do see the couple in the photo 251 Witness by brothers Joseph and John Dumbacher, but the artists’ attempt to achieve a sexy, brooding look turns out needlessly dark and wrongly menacing. Barlow and Gilotty are masked in shadow; the camera focuses on the space between the two, projecting an unspoken tension or seriousness upon a couple that in public is plainly all sunshine. Relationships have their secrets, of course, but these two are unlikely candidates for Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Barlow, at any rate, is too physically prominent to play an unseen, lurking figure. He’s 6-foot-4, a fact that a couple of artists didn’t neglect. Robin Rose’s gold rubbing on rice paper, Thief Once Removed, is nearly as tall as Barlow, and Jeff Spaulding’s Standing Tall is exactly as tall as his subject. A sculptor who works in found materials, Spaulding fixed plastic Lego hair-caps on silver beads, stringing them on a thread running nearly to the ceiling. The Lego hair is unmistakably Barlow-esque—long, straight, and brown—and at the bottom of this Barlow totem pole is a figure of Barlow himself, dapper in art-world black.

Nekisha Durrett’s Philip is a more direct tribute, a funny and flirtatious anime-ish caricature of Barlow’s head. He stares seriously into the middle distance, long locks blowing in the breeze like a samurai’s, as heart-shaped pink clouds float around his head. Durrett playfully hints at the tainted love between artist and collector: Collectors cherish artists’ art, while artists cherish collectors’ cash. That’s not to say that artists’ esteem for Barlow, or vice versa, is impersonal. Amanda Kleinman, frontwoman for the local psych-rock group the Apes, sings a ditty for the collector in her video installation, Ode to Barlow. She sits at a piano and sings to a black-and-white photo of her subject: “Is he a hippie? Is he a creep? Where is his wife? She hardly makes a peep!” She adds: “For some D.C. artists, he’s the only chance/To sell some work so you can buy new pants.” That speaks to Barlow’s sense of play: There aren’t many gallery openings where you’ll find adults parading around in costume, but the “15 for Philip” opening included somebody in a panda suit wearing a will brake for philip barlow T-shirt.

Like Durrett, Rob Parrish gets to the point: In his video 252 Works of Art Owned by Philip Barlow, Barlow reads the titles of the works in his collection, ordered by date of acquisition. But Parrish’s frivolous installation, meant to resemble a shipping crate for art, and choppy video transitions don’t make it less dull. Kathryn Cornelius’ Eh…?! attempts to make a broader commentary on art scenes and arts patronage: Parodying a glossy celeb tabloid, she sets a portrait of Barlow next to a shot of J Mascis (the two undeniably resemble each other), making him part of a two-page spread of fake gossip from the local art world. Will Sean Connery play George Hemphill in a celebrity biopic? Who wore it better—Philippa Hughes or Heidi Klum? Cornelius’ depiction of art-scene personalities is both precious and unflattering: Either it’s earnestly indulging in the community and therefore embarrassing (in the way of a high-school yearbook) or it’s a sarcastic appraisal of the community and therefore deflating (in the way that New York thumbs its nose at smaller social spheres).

Advocacy of the sort that Barlow engages in demands tightrope walks like these: promoting local artists but not cheerleading; building a collection of local art that is comprehensive without compromising on quality; providing insight about what the city needs based on where it’s coming from and going. Despite the things that these artists don’t get quite right about Barlow, no one mistakes his important work for self-importance.

New Sculpture” by Mary Early deviates from the themes she established in solo and group exhibits over the last few years. She’s still intently focused on the circle, her fundamental form, which she has previously represented through spheres and cylinders. The three works in her latest show (along with nine attendant studies in pencil and ink) reveal that she’s retained her interest in formal questions regarding perspective and access, line, and geometry. But in her new works she emphasizes architecture, building pieces from parts that snap together like fences and arranging them in rings.

Two of the new untitled pieces build off principles she established in a 2005 show at Hemphill Fine Arts, in particular a wood-and-beeswax piece shaped like a pineapple slice. In that piece, hollow trapezoidal chambers emanating from a hollowed-out center—like spokes in a wheel—formed the flesh of the cylindrical cross section. The architecture in her latest work is lighter, less dense, and sharper; she builds the cylinders from skeletal frames, emphasizing joints and angles. With an eye toward sculptor John Watson, perhaps, she’s adapting simple geometric shapes—chevrons and arrows—and manipulating them in stacks like circular stake-and-rider fences.

Through this excellent study, Early also addresses how naturally occurring, repetitive forms reveal fascinating fluctuations and flaws. These pieces demand a little less light and a lot more space than the Georgetown Gallery can offer to provide the full benefit of Early’s discoveries. Through both design and material—that radiant, sweet-smelling yellow beeswax—her work reveals the sculptural fact of organic forms: persistent, repetitive, imperfect, and worth close examination.