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Every now and then theorists will trot out some ideas about “the end of painting.” For all the din, most artgoers will likely note that while painting may be less dominant than at any other time in the century, it shows no sign of stopping and occasionally (as at the Corcoran’s Lari Pittman show) even looks like the most robust thing going.

But step into the Torpedo Factory Art Center and you’ll think it’s done—not just painting, either, but all visual expression. Having converted a former weapons plant into waterfront studio space to be leased to artists at cut rates, for over 20 years the City of Alexandria has operated a schlock ghetto. “More than 160 artists work here and the work of an additional 1500 artists is exhibited in our galleries,” the Visitor’s Guide and Directory boasts, numberlust clearly having triumphed over the “jury review” artists are purported to undergo before being allowed to rent.

As might be expected, the culprit is a blind faith in the absolute value of art, regardless of quality. “Where once stood a munitions factory built and run by the Federal Government you now can watch and visit with artists at work,” the guide gushes, blithely ignoring that torpedoes were actually less inimical to land-borne life than the soul-destroying catastrophes now on display. So much for swords into plowshares.

As might be expected of a repository of items most of which would not appear out of place in furniture stores or on those phony pushcarts vendors set up in the middle of overwide shopping-mall thoroughfares, the Torpedo Factory has a food court. There I purchased a slice of sponge-crust pepperoni at Radio Free Italy (“Pizza and Pasta With Frequency”).

Outside offered no respite. Before I could pitch myself over the railing into brown water littered with cigarette butts, driftwood, three gustatorily indiscriminate ducks, and an old tire, I was halted by the spectacle of a young musician. Perched behind one of those miniature bass drums (emblazoned “Curtis Blues—Pre-War Delta Blues”) was a young guitarist, surrounded by such authentically bluesy accouterments as an L.L. Bean shirt, a Rubbermaid water bottle, and a black anodized harmonica holder, singing his heart out: “My daddy was a jockey/He showed me how to ride/He said once in the middle/Twice from side to side.” This ostensibly risqué verse of course offended nobody, either due to the subtlety of its metaphor, the personability of the young musician, or the fact that that’s how all the happy-family spectators watching him got started in the first place. To the side, a magician in a vest and sideburns that would have looked hip on Beverly Hills 90210 six years ago performed card tricks for a crowd that included three girls in shamrock deely-boppers (Alexandria held its St. Patrick’s Day parade early).

Normally, Beneath Contempt is the byproduct of a search for art actually worth thinking about, a manifestation of what happens before criticism takes place. (All critics do this; I’m just writing it down.) Sometimes that search is fruitless. None of the things I saw at the Torpedo Factory even merited considered dismissal. A few highlights:

Galleries:

1. Carol Gellner Levin (“Pairings”) at the Art League: Fanciful duos in terra cotta, some inspired by Delmore Schwartz’s poetry, Winston Churchill’s depression, and Baylor University’s lifting of its prohibition of dancing. “The Offering is about people who go out of their way to make an unsolicited offering to others. In this case, the little man has made a treacherous ascent to extend his hand and offer something (undetermined for the present) to the giraffe. Whether the giraffe will accept the offering remains to be seen.”

2. March All-Media Membership Show at the Art League: We’re supposed to be impressed by the 76.4-percent rejection rate of juror and Northern Virginia Community College associate professor of drawing Nan Haid, but it serves only to fill me with horrible thoughts of what sorts of things didn’t make the cut.

3. Maggie Knaus (“Public Glimpses…Private Thoughts”) at Target: If you don’t think black-and-white shots of torn posters (“palimpsests,” natch) are an outworn conceit, perhaps you’ll warm to the photographer’s preternatural affinity for tidiness (“frozen moments,” I’m afraid) in her color work. Even her light appears well scrubbed. Yes, Knaus won the 1996 Torpedo Factory Artist Award, but in the land of the blind…

4. “51st Annual Show: The Kiln Club of Washington, D.C.” at Scope: My wife has long maintained that clay should be a controlled substance. Can we add beads and feathers to the list?

5. Averill B. Shepps at Enamelists Gallery: Earrings, plaques, and doodads from a shop that hawks things with little shiny cat heads on them—things which, it must be noted, bear cords, suggesting some sort of dependence from the human frame, and hence, alas, public display.

6. “Sacred Spirits” at Fiber Works: Shimmer, ersatz mysticism, and more “wearable art”—actually made my pizza lurch.

7. “Collaborations” at Potomac Craftsmen: Lots of purple, as at the previous show. The highlight at “Washington’s First Fiber Gallery” was a handmade paper lampshade bearing some inspirational verse: “Wild women dance/Wild women sing/Wild women put love into everything.”

Individual Studios:

1. Christine Parson: More sham religiosity, this time with a multiculti bent and much gold leaf.

2. Jacqueline Ehle: Her “creatures of whimsy” include a $75 mouse with a pushpin for one eye and an eraser ferrule wrung off the end of a pencil for the other. $1,200 will get you the upright bass wrought from copper wire; $450, a sax.

3. Robert Rosselle: Whatever the metastatically prolific Donald Kuspit had in mind when he wrote, “The box sculpture is perhaps inherently more psychologically and formally profound than painting and other types of sculpture, which are looked at but not looked into,” it probably wasn’t some shrimpy nymph trotting bare-assed up a stele-flanked flight of stairs toward the priest of the sun god.

4. Laurie Fields: Abstract illusionism meets heavy impasto in silvery spaces that remind you that white is the cheapest color of paint. Posted outside: “Since Laurie Fields came upon the scene ten years ago, her multifaceted painting style has been a constant source of supply to the interior design market.”—DesignSource 1990

Faint Praise: Art Above the Threshold

1. Susan Sanders: Posted on door: “I’m on vacation.”—G.D.