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This past year was the Year of Philippa. Though she’s lived here for a few years, Philippa Hughes seemed to arrive in 2007, springing events on the city. At one party, an artist gave “electric chaircuts,” binding and blindfolding people with tape before breaking out the clippers; another party offered gold-colored art alongside gold-painted performance artists. These were art parties, not art shows, to be clear; what the young socialite and collector does isn’t curating so much as sponsoring. And what she, along with a few others, began sponsoring this year is a scene.
For the most part, the scene is harmless. The bright young things who flock to 14th Street for gallery opening nights overlap with the audience for Hughes-sponsored events like “Luster” or “Press Play.” It’s not very effective, much less appropriate, to cram video installations into an unfinished space with a DJ whose system overpowers any video sound. But art presentation doesn’t seem to rank in the Top 5 list of concerns for attendees. Enthusiasm counts for much more, though in some cases that enthusiasm has yet to deliver much that’s tangible. Consider Artcade, a magazine launched by a couple of Corcoran College of Art & Design students to cover the city’s art scene. It’s been six months since the magazine’s June launch party; the magazine’s Web site, still plugging last summer’s events, could use an update.
At least one institution seems to cater to a hip aesthetic without any apparent compromise in quality. Meat Market Gallery, a spunky space on 17th Street NW, celebrated its first anniversary in October, and an early program on its schedule was one of the best D.C. exhibits of 2007. “Carniceria” by Christopher L. Williams and “Stasis” by J.J. McCracken managed the feat of showing both handsome art and commenting on the nature of the space. McCracken and her assistants made works of clay pottery, then packaged them in vacuum-sealed bags, crushing the ceramic pieces. Her process examines touch and the construction of meaning while simultaneously referencing the project space’s former function as a meat locker. Simply put, it was a perfect fit. Williams’ work furthered the theme of transforming space, placing text and plastering white convex forms onto the gallery walls.
Within the more established circuit of commercial art galleries, an informal fraternity of longtime local artists dominated. Colby Caldwell, James Huckenpahler, and Jason Gubbiotti all exhibited at Hemphill Fine Arts. Friends, frequent collaborators, and artists with strong roots in the city, the three artists developed solo shows that offered an embarrassment of riches—whether in the form of Gubbiotti’s painted planes and perimeters, Caldwell’s rich and nostalgic photographs, or Huckenpahler’s landscapes from virtual realms. These three shows showcased what a true community can create, something that was harder to find at this year’s site-specific keg parties.
Elsewhere, Conner Contemporary Art closed its second-floor Connecticut Avenue NW space, signaling the end of a Dupont Circle art district that’s been dying for years. Next year, Conner will open a dramatically expanded storefront space on H Street NE, a neighborhood that’s even more unlikely to open a fresh space than Dupont. Here there be dragons, at least insofar as high-end commercial spaces are concerned, but perhaps the gallery will lend some legitimacy to the burgeoning bar district, a counter to the trendiness along 14th.
Before closing its current space, though, Conner staged a one-artist show by Mary Coble, a young woman whose performance work consistently marries simple visual concepts, historical research, and gender politics. Before a crowded gallery, Coble, who is a lesbian, endured electroshock aversion therapy, a practice designed to “cure” homosexuality; the treatment has been denounced by the mainstream psychological and medical communities but nevertheless persists today as a DIY procedure—more or less the same way that Coble mounted the performance. Coble is a throwback artist: She’s concerned with strategies that were typical among performance artists a generation ago, but thus far she’s proved able to avoid simply revisiting previously explored territory.
This year was filled with performance-art experiments, and one of the best was a performance about performance art. Meg Mitchell and Washington City Paper contributor Jeffry Cudlin pulled off a perfect Color School parody at the District of Columbia Art Center, reconstructing the lives and careers of “forgotten” Washington Body School artists Ian and Jan. The show worked because the artists know their media well enough to spoof it—a tall order. But the artists surpassed expectations by getting everyone else in on the act, featuring videos of artists, dealers, and historians expounding knowledgeably on Ian and Jan and the city’s lost performance heritage. Kathryn Cornelius had a similar take, staging an elaborate recognition reception for local art-world personalities, in which she played all the videotaped parts. It was an earnest hoax timed to the inauguration of artDC, an international, if bland, annual art fair that now calls the Walter E. Washington Convention Center home.
Those are two fine examples of how to pull off a performative stunt. One thing not to do? Cut off part of your penis and call it art. Adrian Parsons’ self-circumcision was included as part of “Supple,” a show curated by J.T. Kirkland and staged, it would seem, to wow out-of-towners visiting artDC. Those who did attend might have had their suspicions confirmed; the city gets a provincial reputation. Taken as a whole, this year proved that rep unwarranted. Art galleries (and parties, too) have a stronger stake in the urban communities in which they’re based, and it shows—from attitudes about community (however simplistic) to civic identity (however navel-gazing). And the best shows among these exhibited a true sense of D.C.