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“Options 99”

At projectspace to Nov. 20

Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran’s ninth biennial of young local artists, Options 99, registers a youthquake of about 7.9 on the Richter scale. All but one of the show’s nine artists completed a BFA or MFA in the past five years, and every piece in the show was made this year. For the past umpteen months, curator Victoria Reis has been running renegade art shows out of her Capitol Hill apartment, having previously done stints at the National Association of Artist’s Organizations and the International Sculpture Center. She was recruited by WPAC for her insider’s knowledge of D.C.’s hipster contingent. The show she’s spread over projectspace’s three grubby-chic floors reflects the preoccupations of D.C.’s young, citified art-scene types—especially their preoccupations with their not-so-distant youth. There are lots of references to growing up: Bambi, Barbie, TV, and so on. But, perhaps because they’re at the beginning of their careers, most of these artists lack an identifiable vision. They’re so busy mining their pasts or mulling the present that they’ve forgotten, by and large, to make a statement.

The show opens with tripped-out collages by Maribeth Egan packed with layers of images imported from the Kiddieville region of the pop-cultural map: Barbies, Dr. Seuss characters, and freakish monsters. She layers 7-and-1/4-inch-square wood panels with computer-generated images and gouache drawings and then coats them with a thin layer of wax. The most effective panels pull off a psychedelic trompe l’oeil as images pop in and out of focus. There are 25 in all; as a group, arranged here in a grid (save the central panel, which is hung on an adjacent wall), the pieces functions the same as its individual components do—images emerge and vanish as quickly as they came. Egan conveys the onslaught of disposable images in the digital age, but it’s unclear whether she’s delivering a paean, offering a critique, or just holding up a mirror in a blizzard.

District artist Edward Janney brings ‘zines into the gallery and declares them art. Unfortunately, it seems more as if he’s congratulating his friends in the D.C. music and skating scene in War Becomes Me, a photocopied ‘zine that is about the size of those “hell awaits” pamphlets that sidewalk preachers distribute. On opening night, Janney pressed samples of his work into passing palms with a smile and nod, and gallerygoers happily carted around the little treasures. But, without Janney around, the ‘zines sit idly, waiting to be leafed through, and we’re left with work that doesn’t pass close inspection: Its 18 pages are packed with Janney’s inked illustrations of young male skaters whose hipster IQs presumably hover around 120. Curator Reis asserts that Janney’s pamphlets are “accessible” visual communiques that “transcend class, culture, and environment,” but there isn’t much to respond to: Janney’s ideas are opaque, and the occasional in-jokes about Janney’s D.C. music buddies (a broken-armed skater has “Alec” written on his cast) are less amusing than grating. As for the drawings, they’re crude but invigorating, like Robbie Conal’s “Meese Is a Pig,” so it’s not a total wash.

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Here’s something more “accessible”: TV. David Jung presents hazy images in lacquered acrylic on wood panels shaped like TV screens—some flat and some convex. What’s going on in these images is tough to decipher; they’re obscured by the fuzzy horizontal lines of bad reception. The best ones are practically monochromatic, like the acid-green Off by 25. (And, confusingly, among Jung’s 10 pieces here, there are only five titles. So there are two Off by 25s; neither bears any apparent relation to its twin). Another standout is the gorgeous orange-red Boo Boo: Up close, what look like feathery brushstrokes resolve into a fiery sun with heat waves when you pull back about 10 feet. Jung says his TVs are about the “greed, misery, and emotional excess” of TV game shows. There, there. You’re better off forgoing the artist’s Price is Right analogies and looking straight into the images—their obscured forms make great Rorschach tests.

Artists Mica Scalin and Franck Cordes plumb memories of a time when TV was new. Scalin hangs black-and-white transparencies—like X-rays—in layers from two poles resembling small-town wooden power lines in her installation, New Apparatus for a Relative Measurement. Lit by a string of orange-red light bulbs, the images look like old family vacation photos from the ’40s—folks bathe lakeside, take walks in a park—and they’re blown up to 16-by-20 inches to reveal every scratch in the old negatives. The piece works well when you move back and forth in front of it; the images overlap and separate again like memories fading. On a nearby wall hangs a set of black-and-white photos of power lines and urban row houses. These images are supposed to offer the backdrop for the folks in the dangling transparencies; but the poles are installed too far from the wall for the piece to retain its full cogency.

Cordes strikes an angry blow against sugarcoated nostalgia. He proffers a short black-and-white film focusing on a bare-chested man obsessively folding a paper boat and promptly setting it on fire. The film screens on a taut canvas rising up from the desolate beach Cordes has arranged on the projectspace stage—sand littered with abandoned seaside paraphernalia: sticks, a book, a model boat. So much for the good old days.

Arching over the stairs leading to the second floor, Jason Peters’ precarious, untitled sculpture presents a tumbling mass of the colorful grade-school desks and ratty wood chairs we carved our initials in when we were 10, seemingly caught in freeze-frame above the stairway. My interest in this school-daze installation, after the initial shock of the artist’s audacity for assembling this hazardous jumble, faded fast: With all that red binding cord holding the pieces together, there’s not much mystery about how they stay in place. But for every kid who fantasized about breaking up the classroom, Peters is your accomplice.

If the desks don’t fall and you make it to the show’s top floor, you’ll find a pair of natural-history museum dioramas gone awry. Kim Baranowski’s Shivering Stag and Hollow Herd consist of lame-eyed, sometimes limbless deer made of bent aluminum screens seamed with zippers. The towering animals cut striking figures, and curator Reis was smart to install them on this landing. Shivering Stag, a two-legged deer standing alone, is trapped by his own overgrown, spiky antlers—they enclose his head and torso and trail behind him. Baranowski critiques genetic engineers for tinkering with the natural world. Her venison’s hapless expressions and maimed bodies are effectively dissonant, but the works’ amateurish materials are tough to take seriously—especially those gratuitous zippers.

In the show’s truly exceptional piece, artist Nina Martinek keeps the childhood references but cans pop culture and nostalgia. Her Come Play With Me II, installed in its own room on projectspace’s second floor, is a low-lit steel prison cell with one narrow, shoulder-width opening. Inside, a crude swing dangles over a shallow black pool that tricks your senses into a knee-buckling vertigo when you look down into it. It’s a perfect metaphor for fragile childhood innocence: A child teetering on that swing will be lucky not to fall into Martinek’s abyss. Dramatically lit with four spotlights, the vertical bars cast beautiful shadow graphics on the walls and floor, and the ominous sounds she pipes in, of determined footsteps and children laughing, are creepy. Her only misstep is the steel turnstile she’s installed at the room’s entrance; the amusement-park reference detracts from the starkness of her message.

Martinek’s work is refreshingly free of gimmickry, and that extra breathing room allows her intelligence to show through. As for the rest of the show, curator Reis has assembled and positioned most of the works to their best effect. But even under her flattering light, the clarity of expression is obscured by narcissistic posturing: Self-consciousness trumps analysis every time.