“NOMA” is a crypto-geographic buzz word designed to raise the profile of the art scene north of Massachusetts Avenue. Can raised rents be far behind? Budding art impresario Brian Balderston has spotted the trend, and he wants to rub it out quickly. “It’s called Shaw,” he says firmly of the neighborhood. “Technically, we’re located north of Mass Ave., but it’s called Shaw. Always has been. As soon as they start calling it NOMA, a Starbucks will open up across the street.”
The result would be predictable: Once the accrued cachet started showing up in leasing rates, NOMA—ah, that would be Shaw—artists would be driven into more marginal neighborhoods to find cheaper loft space to hold more shows like the one held last Friday evening at Space Four, at the LaFayette building.
As it turns out, the LaFayette, at 1605 7th St. NW, has a long history of hosting the work of those who struggle to make something worth looking at. The scene is enough of a scene to be taking off; some of the LaFayette artists, like Champ Taylor and Jose Ruiz, are regularly showing their work at other spaces in the city.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen things like this happening, and whenever it did, it got little notice,” said John Herman, an art lover who had been at a tonier gallery elsewhere in the city and said he preferred the Space Four exhibit. Showing work in a place artists control has its own rewards, said Herman, because artists, as opposed to commodifying gallery owners, are the arbiters of what is worth showing.
It was Balderston’s second show, the first one being “A Group Polaroid Exhibit” held last May in the same venue, where all the pieces were derived from Polaroid images. Space Four was billed as a “multimixed media” exhibit, with 20 artists showing works based on the loose theme of anatomy. One particularly literal approach offered brains and eyeballs in excruciating detail, accompanied by equally dry biological explanations of synapses and neurons. It failed to inspire a dopamine response in one viewer, who asked, “Why bother?”
Arguably the best piece in the show was a small, intense work by Adriane Shown-Harjo. Untitled Triptych consisted of three vertically hung collages framing Chinese fortune cookies and bits of magazine images painstakingly cut out and juxtaposed against familiar shapes. Shown-Harjo’s work is reassuringly homespun, not overtly personal or cliched, as sometimes happens when artists mix up their mediums. Artis Mooney’s untitled papier-mache concoction suggested a half-formed fetal figure inside wire and razor blades with accompanying text about pregnancy and Caesarean sections. Even the men in the audience could feel the visceral wallop of that particular piece.
Geoff Johnson’s Harbinger Noir (full disclosure: Johnson is a Washington City Paper graphic artist), a haunting series of photographs of an angel messenger who looks curiously like a working girl, used an otherwise contrived religious image to ask some fresh questions.
As is often the case at such gigs, the art and pretension were hardly confined to the floors and wall. Corcoran School of Art grads contributed the bulk of the work and formed the band, a seven-piece assemble with no name (Untitled, perhaps?). The band members are all visual artists, first and foremost, but they did their musical best by banging the requisite bongo into a mix of world beat and triphop. The event was their last gig, their first gig having been the Polaroid show.—Patrick Tracey
For more information on upcoming shows, call (202) 265-2239.