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“Options 1997”

At WPAC’s projectspace to July 26

Last month, Calvin Tomkins wrapped up his review of MoMA’s “Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life” by writing, “An exhibition that opens with Cézanne’s great Still Life With a Ginger Jar and Eggplants and closes with [Wolfgang] Laib’s Milkstone can hardly fail to suggest how much has been lost to art in the last hundred years, and to leave us wondering, as we all do now and then, whether the gains will ever prove to have been worth it.”

You can’t fault Tomkins for knowing his public, but my guess is that it’s much easier to make that statement not only in the New Yorker than in a less conservative publication, but as a New Yorker than as a Washingtonian. While D.C. has museums overflowing with the easel-painted riches of the past, it also has a gallery system clotted with the new work of small-minded drudges completely in pre-modernism’s thrall. Spend an afternoon on 7th Street and you too may become convinced that history’s offerings are quite sufficient for the appreciation of traditional painting—let’s get on with the present.

But minus retardataire realism and similarly pervasive parlor-prim abstraction, would there be a Washington scene? “Options 1997,” the latest edition of the biennial show now under the auspices of the Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran (WPAC), suggests the answer is yes. Centered on D.C. but drawing from as far away as Port Deposit, Md., and Richmond, “Options” gathers the work of 15 young artists who certainly don’t look like Washington’s present but just may figure in its future.

Curator Ceridwen Morris is quick to admit the lack of any shared aesthetic unifying her show, but perhaps she doesn’t really need one to justify gathering together a roomful of provocative local art alternatives. Even before it was absorbed by the Corcoran, the WPA demonstrated a knack for using dramatic, nontraditional spaces (most notably the old Central Armature building on D Street) to create environments that broke with white-cube doctrine without succumbing to urban-grit romanticism. In the former Insect Club, now christened “projectspace,” Morris and the WPAC staff responsible for hanging the show in her absence (a former WPA employee, Morris has moved to California since organizing the show) have arranged the works so that their irreconcilable disparities contribute to an air of general cultural ferment.

This was particularly evident on opening night. The packed crowd was eyeing the three live nudes strapped dangling from a huge contraption that allowed passers-by to jolt them with hydraulic blasts, and children (and adults) were clutching at freshly minted foil leaves as they fluttered to the floor. Everyone was avoiding the flames jetting from a beauty-parlor drying hood, and threading through the throng was a small woman wearing stuffed crocheted horns and a tail.

That would be Ming Yi Sung. She specializes in highly sexed, variegated suits of yarn for the Dream Dresser-meets-Lillian Vernon set. Displayed around wads of batting are gaudy outfits that owe as much to Barbara Woodhouse as to Kiki Smith. There’s a Blue Bathing Suit with pronounced breasts and vulva, a Yellow Dwarf with head and tail, and a well-hung Rainbow-Striped Dog Suit that is also dripping teats, all marrying a fuzzy S&M lust with animal joy. Walkies!

The dark flipside of this omnisexual celebration is provided by Ledelle Moe’s hulking untitled steel and concrete sculpture. Two half-human/half-sluglike forms lie in postcoital lethargy, casualties of private battle. It’s as if the cycloptic basalt columns of Joseph Beuys’ The End of the Twentieth Century were rehumanized, then swallowed by the Blob.

Tara Donovan’s Pact, two nippled cut-wire orbs roughly 1-and-a-half feet in diameter, establishes a drama of closeness that contrasts with the prickly surfaces produced by the thousands of short metal segments. Her other piece, an untitled stack of roofing felt, though like Pact a carefully arranged accretion of discrete materials, appears to be the product of natural erosion, as if a stone formation whittled by the wind and rain.

The artfully fake simulation of nature is also Eric Ucci’s aim. It was his leaf-making machine, whose pincerlike arms stamp columns of leaves—one maple, one oak—out of a scrolling roll of heavy foil, that delighted opening-night patrons. The oversize spindles gracing the ends of the spools as well as the high percentage of wastage indicate that the piece was engineered with qualities other than efficiency in mind. Wittingly or not, the machine exhibited characteristics of the products of “real” industrial design, breaking down two times out of the three that I saw it.

When the leaves fell, though, their fluttering trails vertically linked the various levels of ‘space’s space. Katarina Wong’s A Thirst for Salt, which consisted of several salt and wax casts of feet interspersed throughout the gallery, took the direct route. Though resting on the floor, they were tied to the ceiling with handyman’s chalk lines.

A month later, the aroma had faded, but at the opening, Cheryl Springfels’ still moment filled the front of the gallery with the scent of a heavily soaped window. Initially the most cryptic of the “Options” offerings, the piece, which also involves obscured texts wrapped around ragged rows of straight pins stuck directly into the wall, rather disappointingly reveals itself on the Net (www.corcoran.edu/wpac/cheryl/

cheryl.htm) to be a kind of high-tech nonmonetary pyramid scheme.

Spending enough time online already, I declined to participate, on the whole feeling more comfortable with the quixotic communications of Peter Quinn. His project consists largely of documentation of jaunts to the country during which he placed 8-foot-tall wooden towers topped with cheap outdoor speaker horns in different settings. A display containing 60 photos of one tower or the other stranded in a variety of middle-of-nowheres is accompanied by an enigmatic picture of a teddy bear and a row of cans, each bearing a single letter, so that the sequence reads, “CIRCAPLEX.”

Quinn knows there’s nothing like the landscape to validate the existence of person or thing, but Ivan Jacob Witenstein’s experience of the out-of-doors results instead in a vivid if befuddling Agoraphobic Legacy. “Options” puts up and then shuts up by placing right up front this sculptural tableau of blank office buildings, fence railings morphing into highway stripes, and a naked man holding a gas nozzle to the ass of another naked man who seems to be birthing an airliner from just above his groin. It seems to have something to do with confinement, sex, travel, and escape.

Erick Jackson’s similarly oblique scenes of suburban magical realism are the only paintings in the show, but they stand up well to their more avant-garde comrades. In fact, the most conventional work on display is the photography. Lely Constantinople’s Polaroids of Georgia Avenue seem to owe something to both the South of William Eggleston and the Sunset Strip of Ed Ruscha. Cynthia Connolly presents road-trip vistas in panoramic triptychs, while sometime Washington City Paper art critic George Kimmerling’s memory-driven pictures demarcate Sites for Reclamation.

Paul Roth’s Dachau and New York series each would have been fine by itself, but the juxtaposition seems tendentious and glib. Although impressively massive, Tina Carton’s fiery beauty salon suffers a similar malady. Bearing the slogan, “I won’t love you until you are more like me,” it has a weakness that is common in these conspiracy-hungry days: an oversharp nose for the sinister.

The most formidable piece in “Options 1997,” Jonathan Schipper’s nude-slinging Swing Set, which according to the artist is supposed to turn people into cattle, could have also fallen prey to this paranoiac outlook, but succeeds on sheer balls, so to speak. On one visit, I joined representatives of Old Cars Unlimited of Washington, D.C., a car club that was showing some gorgeous specimens on the street outside, in working up some hydraulic beats, which of course sent the models flopping around like marionettes.

Later, after the models had gotten unstrapped, cutting short the scheduled performance by 20 minutes, I overheard one of them protest, “We’re not a drum section here or something.” Such a comment not only indicates an insensitivity to the fundamental human love of rhythm, but also suggests the need for a body-art charm school.

Perhaps the problem was subcontracting out the performance to assistants. But participants should know that if you’re hanging mute, face to the wall, greeting everyone with your ass, with a panel of switches inviting the viewer to shake your booty, the arrangement is one you have originated. Any model who has volunteered for some saddle time in a piece called Swing Set and doesn’t expect to be slung around a bit knows little of Chris Burden and less of Marina Abramovic.

As the need for this lesson indicates, “Options” has some rough edges, and there’s a fair amount of coming at the cutting edge secondhand, but the artists involved are at least drawing from the proper end of their art-history books, which is more than you can say for many of their local elders. And roughness is something we could use a lot more of around these parts. I’d say projectspace is a good place for D.C. to start looking for what’s shaking.CP

The last Swing Set performance is July 19, 3-4 p.m.