Joe Shannon, a Montgomery County painter noted for his highly charged figurative work, knows his art isn’t the kind most people want hanging above their dinner tables.
For example, in Dora and the Minotaur With Warship, a bull-headed man hovers over a nude woman, while his erection, at full mast, dominates the center of the canvas.
In Hip Hop, a nude black man strums a guitar as a nude white woman perilously points a knife at his head.
And in Two Never to Leave, pale and emaciated bodies lie gnarled and listless on a wooden plank.
“I’m always pushing the boundaries,” Shannon says. “People often buy [my paintings] for their libraries, bedrooms, but not their main hallways.”
Or at least that used to be the case.
Now, anyone who wanders the hallways of D.C. government headquarters will have a chance to glimpse a Shannon piece—but not a Shannon penis—up close and personal. His erection-free Two Poets With Champion is part of the new City Hall Art Collection at the John A. Wilson Building.
The collection, funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, opens to the public Oct. 31 and is the result of a $400,000 push to transform the Wilson Building’s naked walls into a showcase for area artists.
It all began last year when the commission hired artist Sondra Arkin (fee undisclosed “but below market rate,” she said) to amass a potpourri of pieces demonstrating the range of D.C.’s art.
After an initial call, the commission received 4,000 submissions from artists living in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and eventually arrived at 153 works by 100 artists.
“It was like a treasure hunt,” Arkin said, albeit one with some weighty considerations.
Like all civic art, the City Hall Art Collection treads lightly when it comes to the question of what pieces are appropriate for public space. After all, says Arkin, most of the people who visit the building “aren’t coming here to see the art.”
Far from it.
The Wilson Building, home to the D.C. Council and the mayor’s office, has never been a lively place. Sure, there’s the occasional flash of light when the sun catches Adrian Fenty’s head at just the right angle. Or, sometimes, if Anthony Williams and his bow tie happen to be in the house, there’s even a splash of color.
But for the most part, the city’s corridors of power have always been spare and sterile. In fact, one hallway was so indistinguishable from the next that, when placing the art, Arkin had to devise an arcane system of navigation based on the offices and exit signs.
“I was depressed for days,” Arkin said of her first visit to the Wilson Building. “I looked down the hallway and thought, Oh my God. There’s nothing there.”
But with the installation of the City Hall Art Collection, the Wilson Building’s walls are undergoing a total makeover. Soon, the cream-colored walls will be awash in acrylic and covered in pigment and print.
When you attend a council hearing, you’ll be face to face with a piece by the famed Washington Color School artist Sam Gilliam, whose “draped” paintings catapulted him to prominence in the ’60s. Walk a few floors up, and there’s Bridget Sue Lambert’s work. Lambert, who is not yet represented by a gallery, fashions her art—involving figurines against industrial backdrops—in her Logan Circle apartment.
There’s more local art, depicting the Metro’s trippy tunnels, as well as pieces that are international in scope, such as Chan Chao’s Aung Ko and Yon Naing, which stems from a series of portraits from his native Burma. There are photos and porcelain, painting and prints, mixed media and metal.
“The guiding premise of the collection is excellence, and the work included can stand beside anything you will see in our national museums,” Arkin wrote in the book of essays accompanying the collection.
And yet, while Arkin and the commission strove for excellence, concerns about diversity and inclusiveness remained paramount.
“We really wanted to be fair about it,” she says. There was no quota system, but Arkin reviewed artists’ addresses to ensure that every locale—and thus, with luck, every race and class—was represented.
So when she discovered that no one from Ward 7 had been identified for the project, Arkin found a piece by the Ward 7 artist Arthur Tasko Hughes in the Art Bank, the commission’s general collection, and transferred it to the Wilson Building.
But Dupont Circle sculptor Robert Cole, whose work was not chosen for the project because it wouldn’t fit behind a protective layer of Plexiglas, says the collection does not encompass the full range of D.C. art and artists. “They don’t have me, so it’s not range.”
Numark No Mas
D.C.’s contemporary-art scene took another hit last week when Cheryl Numark announced in a press release that her gallery would be closing its doors. Citing personal, health, and professional reasons, the attorney-turned-gallerist says she plans to move on to a new “art advisory” venture, perhaps as an independent curator or working with public art.
And this comes in a year that has already witnessed the closing of Fusebox, leaving some to wonder whether Numark’s departure signals turbulence in D.C.’s contemporary art scene.
But Numark said neither a dearth of promising artists nor a drought of support in the D.C. community has led to her decision. “People have been talking about Fusebox closing, and now I’m closing,” she says. “Does that mean challenging, cutting-edge galleries can’t make it? My issues for closing are very personal. I don’t think it has to do with any trend. I think it would be a real mistake to draw any larger conclusion.”
Since 1995, Numark Gallery has occupied a sprawling chunk of concrete at 625-627 E St. NW where its owner aimed to highlight front-line emerging and mid-career artists, especially those of international acclaim. It became known for its contemporary art and for its ability—at approximately 1,700 square feet with 15-foot ceilings—to showcase larger works. “It’s a pretty special space,” Numark says, adding that she has not yet decided what she will do with the space after the gallery closes.
Jodi Walsh, director of marketing at nearby Zenith Gallery, says Numark’s particular style and savvy will be missed. “The quality was the best of the best. The best artists, the best space, the best of the work. When you’re the owner of a gallery, you have to have your own style, and Cheryl has it.”
Numark Gallery’s “Last Show,” featuring the full roster of the gallery’s artists, opens Oct. 28.—Jessica Gould
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