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If one word could summarize all of the visual arts phenomena in D.C. this year, it might well be “movement.” There was genuine excitement upon the relocation of several major galleries from the towns of George- and China- to a new building on 14th Street NW. There was also the flickering movement of films at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—be it the languorous unspooling of the shower scene from Psycho, improbably extended from 1 minute to 60 by contemporary Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, or the fading film documents of the late Ana Mendieta’s body-art performances of the ’70s.
And there was even movement in journalistic circles. Ostensibly, Blake Gopnik is the Washington Post’s art critic of note. But his coverage of the art scene this year has seemed less concerned with Washington than with a certain city to the north: He wrote a travelogue on the galleries of Chelsea, and he recently began conducting studio visits with artists living and working in Brooklyn. Still, certain D.C. events were on Gopnik’s mind, if not on his itinerary. We could count on him to draw attention to anything confirming his worst suspicions about his occasional hometown—say, those PandaMania bears, or, yes, the redundant controversy of Artomatic (in which I participated). Meanwhile, thoughtful freelance critic Glenn Dixon—the only area reviewer to write on a 19.3 grade level, according to one local art blog—bailed on the Washington City Paper and made an auspicious debut in the Post’s Galleries column. Then he promptly thought better of it and bailed once more—which leaves column readers again with Jessica Dawson and only the blandest publicizing imaginable. But now only twice a month.
Overall, there was movement to the not necessarily antithetical poles of new and old media. Painting was apparently both dead and resurgent, depending on where you were and what you were looking at. There were at least a couple of very strong exhibitions of abstract painting; there were also many excellent shows of installation art, film, and photography. In either case, it finally seemed like a good time to be a D.C. gallerygoer—even at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which mounted a couple of face-savingly respectable (if not stellar) shows in the wake of the great J. Seward Johnson debacle/ publicity stunt/fund drive/media frenzy of 2003.
Hemphill Fine Arts had its grand opening in its new space this November, with a random sampler of its stable titled, a bit too appropriately, “Opening on 14th Street.” The works on display served to indicate just how broad owner George Hemphill’s sensibility is; they also made a number of younger artists look quite good. Colby Caldwell’s luminous inkjet print how to survive your own death and Lisa Bertnick’s digital illustrations of futuristic pinup girls both shone, as did John Watson’s series of tiny, crudely cobbled-together wooden boxes, which resemble model railroad cars built by Cy Twombly.
Along with G Fine Art and Andrea Pollan’s tiny new space, Curator’s Office, Hemphill is now located at 1515 14th St. NW. David Adamson should be setting up shop on the second floor by the end of the year, too. But Fusebox is the venue that arguably started this plastic-cup-raising party. In the past, the space itself has occasionally been more impressive than the exhibitions, but this year saw at least one notable display: Jason Gubbiotti’s “New Ways of Living.” Funnily enough, the formerly local painter’s works mimicked the structure of the modern-art venue: The warped edges of Gubbiotti’s pieces curved sympathetically around the corners of gallery walls, and the crisp, hard-edged abstract forms in these paintings resembled detached passages of mechanical drafting—strange architectural symbols for corridors and passageways, floating and relating to one another against flat monochrome grounds. Gubbiotti was cleverly borrowing pieces of one code for the creation of space and combining and recombining them to make sense of his own engagement with the picture plane.
G Fine Art brought another strong painter to its own inaugural show at its new home—and the works in Maggie Michael’s “Run” performed an associative feat akin to Gubbiotti’s. Her earlier pieces had seemed to follow the dictates of postpainterly abstraction: Latex pigment was poured and pooled into them, apparently not subject to the artist’s intention—except for the fact that the images were made in identical pairs, which she called clones. The paintings in “Run” were more subtly conceived and less obviously indebted to Robert Rauschenberg. In these, Michael worked between accident and careful staging to make cohesive, self-aware visual statements. She additionally allowed cheeky references in her titles to refer to landscape features and other phenomena that her masses of quirkily hued pigment recalled, thus defusing the seriousness of her enterprise at the same time that she exhibited a palpable mastery of it.
Back in December 2003, Numark Gallery moved, too—out of its old headquarters in the 400 block of 7th Street NW and into a space in the 600s with all of the Chelsea amenities: polished concrete floors, high ceilings, and a giant, steel-shuttered storefront that looks a bit like the entrance to a futuristic garage. Numark stands out in a ’hood that’s home to craftsy emporiums such as Zenith Gallery and—even more dubious—pay-to-show member galleries such as Touchstone. Unlike its neighbors, Numark emphasizes the somewhat elusive quality of contemporariness. And though photographer Chan Chao’s current erect-nipple parade isn’t the best expression of it—nudes being only the most loadedly traditional art-historical subject imaginable—the June–July show, “Nikki S. Lee: Parts and Projects,” certainly was.
If Cindy Sherman were to drop her shutter-release cable and allow herself to be absorbed into real-life equivalents of her staged melodramas, well, then she’d be Nikki S. Lee. Lee’s approach up to “Parts and Projects” has been all about assimilation—or lack thereof. For a month or so, the artist would dress up in the uniform of a particular social group and interact with its members. The accompanying visuals, bearing time and date stamps and taken by someone other than Lee, were more documentary evidence than photography. The works in this more recent show were made with a new twist: In each image, Lee was accompanied by a male figure to whom her appearance and actions are presumably keyed. Then the guy was cropped out; typically, only a hand remained. It was both an elegantly simple formal statement and a more compelling conceptual exercise than the earlier work: Lee has assumed a variety of roles, but without the reinforcement of her companion/target, she seemed even more displaced, even less at ease in her succession of skins.
Poor Conner Contemporary Art ultimately wasn’t able to vacate its tiny digs in Dupont and join in the Logan lovefest, despite initial reports that it would do just that. Regardless, the gallery continues to be a bright spot—literally, in the case of Leo Villareal’s spring show of computer-controlled LEDs. Whereas Dan Flavin’s current retrospective at the National Gallery of Art initiates a slow retinal burn, Villareal’s amped-up, continually shifting light and colorscapes created a more willful form of visual overload. These works were hip, hypnotic, and minimal, indebted as much to early arcade games as to early modernism.
D.C. artist Avish Khebrehzadeh also had a notable light show at Conner, albeit one that was less satisfying to parse. Khebrehzadeh’s self-titled October exhibition highlighted both her gifts as a filmmaker and her troubled relationship to traditional drawing. Tellingly, the most successful piece in an exhibition that often combined hushed cinematic atmospherics with equally atmospheric draftsmanship made no use of drawing whatsoever. This show was uneven but ultimately beguiling.
And then there were the museum retrospectives. Some, like the Hirshhorn’s early-in-the-year survey of Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, were fascinating bits of nothing. Gordon has made a career out of seemingly simple conceptual play with pop-cultural images. Despite the economy of his means, the results work almost vexingly well: Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (1996) is just a photograph of the artist wearing a cheap blond wig, but the mere act of reading the title begins a succession of mental readjustments for the viewer—an elegant encapsulation of Duchamp’s idea that successful art creates gaps in cognition while being viewed and staves off full comprehension.
Also part of a Hirshhorn retrospective, Ana Mendieta’s films are still on display. These documents of ritualistic performances involving nudity, blood, and earth owe their power in part to their lack of after-the-fact manipulation: Each is one long, continuous take, recalling early newsreels and silent-era films in which the camera appeared to be a passive, objective observer. They’re more compelling than the show as a whole, which vacillates between the timeless and the hopelessly anachronistic as Mendieta is shown making her way through a minefield of cross-cultural sampling and feminist essentialism.
The futuristic, undulating metal ribbons of the Corcoran’s 2009 Gehrification loom on the horizon; in the meantime, the museum has hosted two shows all about the past. “Sally Mann: What Remains” embodied the neoscholastic idea of art’s enfolding ugliness into a category of aesthetic beauty—or at least that’s one way to explain my irresistible attraction to photos of someone’s dead dog. Mann used photographic techniques dating back to the 19th century to show her beloved pet in various states of dismembered decomposition. The flaws generated by the extremely sensitive wet-collodion process were a perfect match for both old bones and the accompanying views of Civil War battlegrounds, more of which hung in “Sally Mann: Last Measure” in Hemphill’s old space. Less impressive were Mann’s photos of corpses and of her children looking a bit like corpses.
Rather than show images of the departed, Caio Fonseca’s Corcoran retrospective managed to be a bit of a dinosaur itself. The painter’s regular, nearly interchangeably serial confections made for a show of pretty pictures, yet aimed toward no particular end. Even the artist himself seemed unable to articulate any way to bring his art into the present, but interested paleontologists can still examine these remains through Feb. 14, 2005.CP