“The Last Show”

It’s hard to imagine Chinatown without Numark Gallery’s space-age-garage storefront, bewildering weary tourists and Verizon Center patrons alike with bundles of green monofilament, upended shampoo bottles, or large color photos that, well, just seem wrong somehow. But the end is indeed nigh: Owner and director Cheryl Numark says she needs a break, and she apparently doesn’t mean a weekend getaway. After 11 years (three in its current space), the gallery is closing its doors for good. Its goodbye exhibition, titled simply, sadly, “The Last Show,” offers a thumbnail sketch of everything that Numark has done right—and maybe a few of the limitations of her mission statement, too.

Twenty of the artists that Numark has presented over the years are on view, and both the quality of the work and the success of its presentation break down neatly by medium. Simply put: The photography is great, the sculpture and installation pieces are a mixed bag, and the painting is bad—not incompetent, mind you, just committed to an idea of what painting is that seems a little wrong-headed. In each case, the crucial factor tends to be the extent to which the object in question exists as a consumable object. Generally, the more the work leans toward unabashed decoration and design, the less satisfying it is.

It might seem strange to purists that the photography here is so excellent—mostly because Numark’s shutterbugs aren’t always photographers per se. More often, they use the camera either as a means of documenting performances or site-specific works, or as fodder for subsequent digital alterations. In Nikki S. Lee’s case, she’s not even holding the camera, typically relying on others to take the time-and-date-stamped snapshots of her identity-bending performances. In her pieces from 1997 to 2001—The Hispanic Project, The Seniors Project, The Tourist Project, for example—Lee adopted the appearance of a certain social group and then spent several weeks with that group, recruiting its members to take photos of her in character. In Lee’s 2004 Numark show, “Parts and Projects,” her identity was dependent on a male counterpart who had been cropped out of every single photo. With that person missing, Lee’s costume, posture, and mental state became inscrutable. It was a powerful feminist message about emotional dependence and isolation.

Unfortunately, none of this work is on view at Numark now. To its credit, the gallery has tried to avoid the appearance of simply putting on a greatest hits exhibition—there are lots of older works here, sure, but there are a number of new pieces as well. In the case of Lee, this means that the newish piece, In Production (5) (2006), is all you’ll get. Lee has of late made the leap into film production; her film, a.k.a. Nikki S. Lee, is a sort of documentary, albeit a deliberately staged one, testing the limits between fact and self-defining fiction. In Production (5) is simply a series of five behind-the-scenes stills from various film locations, mounted in a vertical row on a single lightbox. The top two images show fireworks exploding against the night sky; underneath, photos show the star and her production crew hard at work. A final shot shows an audience looking skyward, their faces reflecting glowing red light. These smallish, unremarkable photos are interesting as artifacts and as an intuitive narrative sequence, speaking to the content and choreography of Lee’s film. But they hardly offer the self-sufficing—if not always self-explanatory—punch of Lee’s earlier work.

Doug Hall’s Squaw Valley, California (2004) makes a return appearance, having last been seen here earlier this year in his show “Some Places.” Hall takes photos on the thresholds of monuments, natural wonders, and other tourist attractions—the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Coney Island, etc. He then edits out or pastes in tourists, creating nonexistent social groupings, networks of crossed glances, and shadows that fall in different directions. Squaw Valley, a digital C-print measuring roughly 62 by 50 inches, has little of such postproduction trickery, but it nonetheless communicates the same idea. The foreground is a cluster of bright red plastic chairs and tables; amidst them, skiers have lunch, engage in surreptitious people watching, and occasionally appear to have conversations with nonexistent companions. Racks filled with skis form a barrier between the people and the beautiful mountains behind them, which remain mostly unnoticed—the attention is all on social ritual. Manipulated or not, the picture is a fascinating exploration of boundaries, emphasizing both the ways in which our experience of place is typically mediated and our self-consciousness in the midst of having a good time.

Unlike Hall, Shimon Attie doesn’t use Photoshop; he changes the landscape itself by projecting images directly onto it. Attie was last at Numark in 2005 with his show “The History of Another,” in which he projected black-and-white images of Jewish immigrants living in Italy around the end of the 19th century onto the monuments of Rome at dusk. Here, an earlier series of photos from Berlin produces much the same effect. In the lower right-hand corner of Almadstrasse 25 (1993), a religious book salesman hovers, a black-and-white ghost framed by the architecture around him; in the upper left, strange cartoonish shapes float in a child’s window, surrounded by reflected violet light. It’s almost hard to believe that Attie’s photos are documents of continuous moments in time: Everywhere artificial illumination and architectural fragments break up the picture plane into mysterious vignettes, making his photos appear like collages or dioramas. With an economy of means—a few black-and-white slide projections and plain old-fashioned 35mm tungsten slide film—Attie magically summons the impression of the city as a conditional place with a long memory, animated by the lives of its occupants, past and present.

In the case of Dan Steinhilber, at least, there’s no need for ambivalence; he’s long been a master of the reductive, playful gesture with cleverly arranged found objects, reliably provoking a forehead-slapping, why-couldn’t-I-think-of-that? feeling in his viewers. Untitled (2004) is exactly that sort of a sculptural one-liner, poised just so between stupidity and elegance: A white plastic oscillating fan sits on the bare concrete floor, unceremoniously plugged into a nearby outlet. It blows a continuous stream of air through the grille of its twin—another fan, directly facing the first a mere 2 or 3 inches away. The second fan isn’t plugged in; its blades turn in reverse, responding to the breeze generated by the first. Its power cord sits in a slack little bundle, wandering in and out of a groove in the floor. Again, there’s so little manipulation here—yet it’s an allusive artistic intervention, speaking to relationships, both professional and personal, as well as ideas of influence and original thought. Steinhilber is something of a D.C. art star; all it takes is this one minimal gesture to remind us why.

Like Lee, Sharon Louden also provides a sample of her newest direction. Early last year, Louden filled the gallery with bundles of monofilament in various thicknesses and all sorts of neon colors—giving the impression of a room filled with psychedelic ghosts or exotic deep-sea creatures. Her new work uses video instead, employing curvy linear signifiers that recall both her hanging plastic bundles of line—gestures in the air, as Louden might put it—as well as her earlier paintings on panels, which were filled with clumps of little brushstrokes like limp macaroni or worms. The video, Pool (2006), is displayed on a tiny video monitor; in it, a horizon line forms between the darkened lower third of the screen and the light-blue-tinted upper part. Various curvy lines begin to drop from the top of the image, slowing and changing color as they pass into the darkened region, then hanging suspended in the lower right-hand corner. The strokes eventually seem to move toward the viewer, quickly growing larger until they disappear. After about a minute and a half, the screen fades to white, and the video begins again.

The graphics seem a little primitive here; it’s not clear that Louden’s instincts for the digital realm are anywhere near as refined as her empathy for malleable material stuff. Part of this may be the limitations of the group-show format: Louden typically intends her videos to be viewed on a much larger scale—in projections that fill the wall or walls of the gallery. Pool, then, is just a telltale glimpse of what a future Louden show at Numark might’ve looked like. The viewer is left guessing.

Tony Feher’s Green (2006) is also specific to this show and seems right in line with Steinhilber’s work, at least superficially. Thirteen plastic beverage bottles hang just above eye level, suspended in a clump by a length of white nylon cord, which has been tossed over a beam and tied to a large screw eye protruding from the wall. The bottom third of each bottle is filled with a cool green liquid that collects in its projections and indentations. This emphasizes the strangeness of these blown plastic forms, turning them into a bouquet of futuristic flowers.

Over the years at Numark, sculptural installations have typically become safely commodified—tasteful baubles with clean lines in a retro-modern show room—rather than challenges to the primacy of the gallery’s space. Certainly Cheryl Numark has ambitiously sought out installation artists, and she has said that in the future she might be interested in more public art projects as well. But when artists have interacted with the ceilings and walls of her gallery, the space has always remained safe and intact, defining the objects within it—never the other way around. Feher has transformed everyday impoverished materials, sure, but to what end? Whatever the artist’s intent, Green merely looks like some high-design chandelier.

The worst symptoms of the gallery’s cautious tendencies are found in the paintings. Numark has typically favored a slick brand of West Coast painting, as best exemplified by David Ryan and Adam Ross. Ryan, who lives and works in Las Vegas, sandwiches together biomorphic shapes cut from MDF—medium density fiberboard, the engineered stuff that Ikea uses to make furniture. Ryan’s LA 007 981 (2004), for example, is like a perfectly smoothed-over Jean Arp. Around 1917, the German-French artist was tacking together pieces of wood cut into abstract shapes and painting them with household enamels. Ryan updates the idea, offering satiny-smooth eggshell surfaces and perfectly sanded contours. Interlocking rings of crimson, cadmium, and magenta peek out underneath a large ovoid shape cleanly divided in two parts—one purple, the other white. The result is a semisculptural distillation of an impeccably decorated modern apartment. It’s familiar and pretty—but hardly thought-provoking or novel.

Adam Ross seems bent on recapturing something of early modernism, too; his quasi-cubist cigar-shapes and parallelograms echo the work of Ferdinand Leger as well as the covers of 1960s dystopian sci-fi novels. Untitled (2006) follows the script of the Ross paintings seen at Numark this past spring: Clean-edged geometric shapes, looking like a cartoony, futuristic city, are menaced by inky free-floating blooms of pigment resembling mushroom clouds. Ross’ work is almost worthwhile in the way that it plays with the inability of older visual codes to envision the future, or conjure palpable dread. But, like Ryan, Ross is ultimately replaying the ideas of the early moderns in decorative, samey paintings.

When “The Last Show” closes, a nagging question will remain unanswered: Will D.C. art at its most contemporary and most visible levels continue to boil down to a boutique affair? Call it a Washington Color School hangover; blame it on astronomical real-estate prices—whatever the reason, D.C. has long had something of a reputation for liking its art corporate and colorful. Over the last decade, by picking and presenting artists such as Steinhilber, Attie, Hall, and Lee, Cheryl Numark has bucked that trend and shown a discerning eye—and we should all thank her for that. But she’s just as often shown an affection for sterile, perfected surfaces, too, opting to feature paintings that exist as beautiful accoutrements for modern living first, carrying whatever parodic or ironic content they might have safely inside an exterior meant mostly for delectation. Maybe this reflects a belief on Numark’s part that painting is exhausted and really just about decoration, after all. If that’s the case, then there really is a consistent logic underpinning the selection of the works here. CP