We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Jan. 5

Bad public sculpture is an unavoidable fact of workaday Washington life. No matter where you spend the bulk of your waking hours, you are sure to find rising in your gut, day by indistinguishable day, a slow tide of resentment toward whoever made that thing. When I worked at Metro Center, my building’s lobby housed a heroic figure that came to be known as Captain Asparagus, for the great vegetal stalk that twined around his leg and preserved his modesty. When I worked in Adams Morgan, I bemoaned the installation of a crouching concrete man who bore toward a bright tomorrow the rainbow-bedecked child on his back. Even now that I work at home in Silver Spring, there is no escape; a balletomane neighbor has erected in his front yard a homemade monstrosity we have christened the Pas de D’oh!

Then there was the perfectly vacuous group of figures depicting an avuncular gent frolicking among the Children of the World that stood outside the offices of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation when I worked on L Street NW. Like the organization itself, the sculpture was designed to polish up the image of Ryoichi Sasakawa, a Japanese militarist-turned-industrialist-turned-philanthropist who, as late as 1974, was claiming to be “the world’s wealthiest fascist.” Even without knowing the history of the patron, any passer-by not susceptible to the sculpture’s charms as a tourist-photo prop is likely to write the thing off as trash and keep walking. But when you see it every day, you come to harbor a very special animus toward it.

Corcoran Gallery of Art President and Director David C. Levy writes that the maker of this last piece, J. Seward Johnson Jr., has long produced “work that sought its audience among a broad segment of the public rather than the more rarefied atmosphere of the art world,” and that “[a] possibly inadvertent outcome has been the virtual anonymity of the artist himself…” The Corcoran is now attempting to rectify this situation by giving the Johnson & Johnson heir his first museum show. But what Levy fails to understand is that Johnson has so far remained unknown for the same reason that I can’t recall the makers of any of the other ugly lumps that have discolored my workdays: People who like his street sculpture don’t really think all that much about it, and people who don’t like it would just as soon never think of it again. With both admirers and detractors, there’s a threshold to be met, and things such as Sasakawa’s Tomorrow simply don’t reach it.

It is possible to achieve widespread name recognition in the face of art-world antipathy—just ask Thomas Kinkade or Anne Geddes—but you have to give people something they really want, whether that be cozy fantasies of home or babies dressed like carrots. Or, I’m willing to bet, the opportunity to mingle with characters from the golden age of museum-shop fodder, by which I mean French impressionism and everything in its vicinity, proto- to post-.

Yes, it was wise of Levy to ignore Johnson’s street sculptures and focus instead on the three-dimensional adaptations of famous paintings that have occupied the artist for the past decade, giving over the Corcoran rotunda and most of the second floor to 18 new installations inspired by Manet, Monet, Renoir, and the like. With an eye to the salaciousness of figurative art, Johnson encourages physical interaction with his work: Viewers are invited to part the beaded curtains of Olympia’s boudoir and cuddle up next to the courtesan. They can make themselves comfortable on van Gogh’s famously skewed bedstead, look up Mme Monet’s kimono, scatter leaves over the nakedness of the woman in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

The sculpture, alas, is graceless crap: clumsy, swollen, and unrefined—poorly conceived and poorly finished. The digitally crafted backdrops are blurry messes. Slathered-on color causes the figures to evoke less those in the original paintings than the rusticated menu-board butlers you find outside the sort of restaurant that is nestled beside an antique mall in a converted mill. In one particularly ill-considered arrangement, Johnson’s Lap of Choice shares a room with Young Girl at a Window, the 1883 Mary Cassatt canvas it’s modeled after. The 2-D girl has the dreamy, faraway delicacy that Cassatt gave nearly all her sitters. Johnson’s 3-D lass, whom the Corcoran allowed him to paint in situ, is thick, coarse, and aggressively dim—sort of like Jennifer Garner whenever her Alias character is forced to confront a particularly vexing conundrum.

Of course, it’s asking way too much to expect Johnson’s pieces to measure up to the originals. And despite the protestations of both artist and organizer that his work can serve as a set of visual-art training wheels to ease a timid public into the joys of look-ma-no-hands museumgoing, it’s really asking the wrong question. For all Johnson’s boasting that he’s somehow doing exactly what the impressionists did—a recurring motif in his catalog quotes—his tableaux deserve to be compared not with late-19th-century art, but with the popular amusements of that time.

The idea, advanced by Johnson and his defenders, that a painting becomes more “real” if translated into three dimensions historically has produced both the tableau vivant, essentially the picture made into frozen theater, and the wax museum, in which portraits are made into mannequins. Although Johnson’s curving backdrops are executed on a fairly small scale, as befits impressionism’s intimate subjects, they rely on the same illusionist technology as the cyclorama, particularly in the urban expanse that sets the stage for a version of Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. The pieces are arranged throughout the Corcoran so as to inspire a casual stroll among them—a rather inspired touch, for they do not repay close study. In this, the installation evokes the early amusement park, which was little more than a pleasure garden in which the main attraction was the behavior of other visitors. In purpose and look, the sculptures and settings echo also the sets and backdrops in a tintypist’s studio, designed to whisk the sitter off to an exotic locale in the click of a shutter.

All of these Victorian entertainments tap into a fundamental desire to have one’s fantasies played out either in actual physical spaces or in illusionistic depictions thereof. This desire doesn’t appear to be constrained by historical epoch—or at least not by any epoch that comes after the Renaissance discovery of perspective. It’s responsible for both the staginess of surrealist painting and the conservatism of science-fiction illustration. You see it, too, in the development of online role-playing games, in the proliferation of paint-ball courses and laser-tag

arenas, and in the hegemony of the CGI-driven Hollywood spectacle.

At the Corcoran, the phenomenon is most obvious in the public reaction to If It Were Time, an elaborate, multilevel setup modeled on Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse. Enter the Hemicycle, mount the steps, and join the painter as he gazes down upon the scene he renders. Then descend and mingle among his subjects as a video camera captures the entire tableau and projects it into an ornate frame to produce a new “painting” that has you in it. It’s a grand entertainment—and so long as you don’t scrutinize too intensely, its general effect is rather meta in a way that might have been reasonably impressive if it were, say, 1988. When I was visiting, people were taking pictures both from the sweet-spot perspective of the video camera and of the finished product of the video painting.

Of course, as the piece takes shape as an indoor tourist attraction, the usual shutterbug imperatives come into play. Wherever a lens is leveled at something the public has been directed to admire, the one constant that emerges is that people don’t much like strangers polluting their vacation snaps. When an amateur photographer brusquely requested that I step aside, I did so, but not without protesting that roaming among the figures down on the floor was part of the point. Another time, I had to halt my progress through the exhibition to allow a woman’s camera private access to Welcome Home, Johnson’s version of van Gogh’s bedroom.

It’s undeniable that Johnson has touched the people—but what kinds of people? The fact that less than a week into the show’s run several of the settings had already been plundered by souvenir hunters suggests that the Corcoran has a hit on its hands, but it bodes ill for the cultivation of an audience that respects art. I overheard one couple planning to take photos of their kids playing in this cultural theme park. Another woman’s assessment of If It Were Time was that “it’s like a children’s museum where you can crawl through the manhole.”

However hard-pressed cultural institutions are to get folks to care about culture, the quandary of bringing art to the people should not be addressed with an adulteration of art. Some responsibility must lie with the public—which ultimately may not be all that interested in educating itself. I’m reminded of a time when a few of us were standing around the water cooler slagging off some undistinguished popular band of the moment. A co-worker came to the group’s defense. “I like them,” she confessed, “but then I don’t really like music.” The likely possibility is that Johnson is making a briefly effective appeal to people who “don’t really like art” rather than winning lifelong converts to visual culture.

But the question remains as to the wisdom of the Corcoran’s staging a popular entertainment that has serious art heads shutting their eyes, plugging their ears, and retreating to their “safe places.” It appears that the museum is attempting to provide programming solutions to problems that originate in the development department. If, as one member of the staff has suggested, it takes the proceeds from an exhibition such as this one to pay for the Robert Frank show nobody would write a check for, that argues for improving fundraising tactics rather than lowering curatorial standards. Donors don’t merely back shows; they back institutions. By this point, through not only its current show, but also sycophantic celebrations of Judith Leiber, Larry Rivers, and Annie Leibovitz, the Corcoran has established a reputation for “populism” that may scare off those who might want to attach their names to the museum’s riskier, more prestigious offerings. In light of this trend, it could be argued that Levy doesn’t deserve to be head of a significant national art museum. But there’s really no need: As things stand, he isn’t. CP