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“CENSUS 03: New Art From DC”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Oct. 6

In a day of heavily theorized theme exhibitions calculated to demonstrate a curator’s mastery of the institutional idiom, the some-of-this, some-of-that summertime group show offers a welcome opportunity to just look at stuff. “CENSUS 03: New Art From DC” doesn’t pretend to have a plan. It’s about who’s around right now. The Corcoran College of Art and Design has rounded up seven artists—or, rather, six artists and one group—and thrown them together in a couple of rooms to see what sticks.

The installation is anything but slapdash, though, and the main beneficiary of the care of the Corcoran’s lighting crew is Graham Caldwell, a glass artist (artist with glass? let’s not limit him) who has made a name for himself over the past few years with dangling concatenations of blown and forged units that suggest a range of natural elements, from worms to raindrops to the apparatus of the inner ear. Building on an exceptional fall show at Addison/Ripley, he has amplified a couple of ideas that cried out for execution on a larger scale. Hung on slender steel supports, Transversalis (2003) is a fragile assemblage of beautiful and repellent hookwormlike swags whose garnet coloration thins and tears as the material bellies and stretches. The components of Seedling (2003), in a range of smoky blues, angle out from the wall, a couple of them sporting shocking little curlicues. Both pieces emerge from thickets of shadows that sometimes seem more physically substantial than the glass itself.

Maggie Michael benefits even more from working on a larger scale. Her color-field-inspired paintings use thick, skinlike pools of poured latex to explore a proto-Pop- and Pop-derived fascination with the improbably repeated mark. At G Fine Art last fall, her “clones”—which suggested some Zen exercise in arbitrary discipline, one organic outline mimicking another below it—served mainly to impress upon us Michael’s ability to control liquid paint. But once she’d refined her technique, she went in search of a formal language that could sustain departures from the duplicative ideal. Appearances at Decatur Blue and the Mexican Cultural Institute found her fruitfully continuing her explorations, but I wasn’t prepared for the power of the new pieces. Working on canvas instead of the clones’ translucent Plexiglas, Michael is now making some of the most perversely appealing pictures in town. Geometric, calligraphic, vaguely anatomical, Canon (2003) also displays Michael’s almost medicinal color sense: It’s as assertively tasty as raspberry cream and raw liver get.

Michael placed first in last year’s Exxon/Mobil Open Exhibition, and Team Response, which has made scale models of the “CENSUS” artists’ studios “based on stereotype” rather than fact, places her in a subterranean bomb shelter emblazoned with the petroleum behemoth’s logo. Like all of the best pieces by TR’s Justin Barrows, Jason Balicki, and Matthew Sutton, this one culminates in a mean little snap. So does the inverted pyramid of castle-block LEGOs that make up Dan Steinhilber’s mountain hideaway: On a table inside is a teensy book barely recognizable as Phaidon’s Tom Friedman monograph—Friedman being the artist to which snarky scenesters most frequently compare the young sculptor.

Steinhilber, as no one in Washington art circles doesn’t know by now, is the other half of the hot couple of the moment—hence the pipe connecting his fantasy studio to Michael’s. He has a Directions solo show coming up at the Hirshhorn next month, had four mainly successful pieces in the Numark summer show that closed a couple of weeks ago, and right now appears to be biding his time. His concave-façaded mock skyscraper is made of 26 stories of white paper cups, linked together by pulp-paper carrying trays of the sort you get at the deli. It’s well-thought-out, but sort of ho-hum in the way you’d expect a slice of Dixie-cup Brasilia to be—and not too distinctive at a time when lots of young artists are toying with the modularity and repetition of urban-renewal-era modernism.

Tim Doud’s portraits, by contrast, are distinctive enough, in the most modest of postmodern ways. They’re sort of Alex Katz-meets-

John Waters—which makes them sound much better than they actually are. A pretty decent colorist but a fundamentally conservative painter (I look deep into his future and I see…retiring provosts), Doud uses what a decade ago would have been termed the “alternative” personal styles of his friends to let him get away with the fact that he is not very good at getting inside their heads. (Significantly, when the Team Response guys placed his easel on a pier in a drained wave pool in a Brooklyn warehouse—no, I don’t get the D.C. connection, either—they propped a dollhouse-ready gilt-framed Victorian portrait next to it.) You’d think it would count for something that Doud paints only people he knows well, but then—no, I refuse to participate in the great Gigli pile-on of the summer of 2003.

Iona Rozeal Brown’s paintings, on the other hand, are basically Masami Teraoka-meets-Vanilla Ice—which makes them seem only slightly worse than they actually are. Inspired by Japanese and Korean youths who appear to have taken Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black” at face value, she captures their minstrelsy ukiyo-e style. This nifty bit of high-concept claim-staking is unlikely to sustain a career, but what’s worse is that, unlike Teraoka, Brown seems to lack the finesse to pull it off. As she could have learned from the example of Shahzia Sikander, a busy postgraduate production schedule is a bad reason to skimp on craft to the point that any reference to your traditional source material is of negligible value. But then again, maybe Brown just can’t handle a brush all that well.

Team Response’s one real dog is its vision of “media composer” Randall Packer’s studio as one of those eye-capped pyramids that stokes conspiracy theories in the brains of stoners staring down the back of their last dollar. It suggests that Barrows, Balicki, and Sutton didn’t find the project in which Packer installs himself as the chief of the fake US Department of Art & Technology all that inspiring—and if that’s the case, I’m inclined to agree.

If I were looking to launch a really dastardly reality hack, I’d work for The Daily Show, on which it’s hard to tell how deep the deception runs, or the Schwarzenegger campaign, in which everything’s a gag until suddenly it isn’t. Packer’s prank is simply an in-group whim that should have evaporated with the next round of margaritas. Part of the problem is text—there’s a river of it, basically a Web-site dump—and part of it is the shaky tone, varying between flaky, earnest, and bureaucratic. But a lot of it is the graphic design, which never looks convincingly governmental or convincingly “artistic.” Instead, it evokes the clumsily Photoshopped covers of the homemade CDs by aspiring jam bands that used to come across my desk by the score in the mid-’90s.

Apparently, Packer is fairly well-known among the die-hards who still look forward to getting Wired every month. But when the oldster of the “CENSUS” group tanks with the Info Age stuff while a couple of his juniors find new things to say with glass and paint, one thing becomes clear: To paraphrase the old Jimmie Lunceford tune, ’tain’t what you work—it’s the way that you work it. CP