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Feeling I had slighted the local gallery scene in ’96, I resolved to venture beyond the museums in ’97. So it was with the fervor of the newly chastened that on the first Friday evening of the new year I marched through the galleries of Dupont Circle and on the following afternoon ventured into Georgetown.
A little over 24 hours after I began my adventures, I sit in my office rechastened, only differently now. Not that my misgivings ever were mere prejudices, but I have confirmed that while D.C. is a world-class museum city it is a gallery jerkwater. Were it not for the Cowsills on the stereo and a sense that my tendencies toward self-punishment have already received enough exercise, I’d be making like Hazel Motes for a bucket of quicklime.
It seems that the local critical establishment, such as it is, has failed D.C. viewers. Having confused the defensible impulse to support art with the statistically indefensible aim of supporting artists, D.C. critics have mollycoddled creative types, applying ridiculously low standards to locally shown work simply because it’s here. Softhearted, they’ve taken in artists like strays, as if all who declare themselves slaves to the muse deserve a good home. But now we can barely see the floor for all the droppings, and the poor dears still mewl for their milk.
And reviewers keep pouring. Galleries display and hand out fawning Saturday Post columns by Ferdinand Protzman. Bill Dunlap can’t wait to tell you all about his 50 latest finds on Around Town. The gallery-door sentinel, KOAN (Ken Oda’s Art Newsletter), groups reviews into three categories. Most shows fall under “Must See” or “Worth Seeing.” KOAN’s harshest scorn?: “Mixed Feelings.” Now we know the sound of one hand clapping.
In major art markets there exists unspoken critical consensus not necessarily on the merits of any particular artist but on whether an artist is worthy of consideration at all. In the serious art press, an artist must be deemed of a certain importance even to garner a negative review. Thus is the harried artgoer, who often does not have the luxury of midweek leisure time to spend indiscriminately in galleries, saved from feeling an obligation to learn about artists who are patently not worth the trouble. And if the art press isn’t targeted chiefly at viewers of art rather than its purchasers, manufacturers, and vendors, art writing is a petty endeavor indeed.
Our monthly gallery guide, Beneath Contempt, intends to provide a roster of art offerings that no one should feel guilty about missing. However much I would like to, I can’t promise you a list of the worst in D.C.’s galleries. BC cannot pretend to completeness. If you feel I’ve missed a “worthy” show, I probably have. Last weekend, for example, certain Dupont galleries didn’t take part in the First Friday openings. Some Georgetown art shops failed to keep their advertised hours. Since it was right after the holidays, many of the works on display were leftovers from shows that had technically closed. But if a piece was on view, it was eligible.
Given the housewife-friendly hours local art boutiques keep when they aren’t pouring the plonk, there simply wasn’t time to visit 7th Street last weekend. It would be a full-time job to hit all the galleries and alternative spaces in the area each month, a project Washington City Paper would be unlikely to bankroll and I’d be loath to undertake.
I’m also including, under the heading “Faint Praise,” a second list of shows and artists that I found contemptible or better. I’m not intending to create a pass/fail grading system for art, but occasionally I do stumble across things that don’t meet BC’s strict criteria (if there is so much as an inkling of doubt that something is truly beneath contempt it isn’t recorded as such). Please don’t assume anything about artists and shows not listed. If artists within a group show are singled out, they at least deserved the notice. But sometimes I was simply too overcome to examine every half-uncrated object or write down every name represented by a piece or two, however execrable. If an entire group show is written off, however, it is supposed to be.
It’s a big, big world out there. Here’s to making it a little smaller.
A Briefly Annotated Selection of Ignorable Art
1. Mary Connelly, Coleen Garibaldi, Jeanne Meyer, and Michael Sprouse at eklektikosEverything’s congealing in my mind into one great incarnadine mass. It’s called Red Room, and Steve McQueen can’t find the fire extinguisher.
2. Alexander Anufriev at Alla RogersThis émigré’s mash-headed angels make George Tooker look like Botticelli and Soviet censors look like their agendas weren’t always merely political.
3. Ron English and Stuart Gosswein at MOCA/Clark & Co.In which the former gives us more card-shop Scream jokes and the latter proves that even the self-portraitist can find his subject matter lacking.
4. Gayle B. Tate at Creighton-DavisThis Petophile sure tromped my oeilfor a split second I thought I was looking at an actual painting.
5. Therman Statom at Maurine LittletonPeople who build glass houses shouldn’t fill them up with playing cards, knickknacks, and Twomblyesque scrawls.
6. Glen Cebulash at CourtyardLittle landscapes so polite you feel like asking them in for teachamomile tea.
7. “Annual Christmas Group Show” at Okuda InternationalI was getting all worked up over a Steven Weitzman soft-porn bronze when a piece from Sharon Frazier’s “Falling Water” series reminded me the whole world was weeping.
8. “A Breath of Fresh Air II” at Washington PrintmakersSafe as milk, and not just the materials, either.
9. Mary Grigonis at Burton MarinkovichIt’s one thing to envision Metro escalators as stairways to heaven, another to commit that visionseriouslyto canvas.
10. John Figura at AntonA solitary red rose hovers against the darkling sky in Eternal (Painting for R.P.), which is actually the most deft canvas in a show whose celestial mechanics required the spillage of much blue and gold paint.
11. Roberta Thole at Studio”Thole uses the imagery of the column, arch and vase to recall antiquity.” Not a furniture showroom? Or a tony “Roman” restaurant?
12. Foust at FraserThese angst-ridden genre scenes provide espresso-bar domesticity, dark roast-style.
Faint Praise: Art Above the Threshold
1. R.B. Kitaj at Robert BrownHey, Protzman got it right! Viewing this collection of dust-jacket prints is like looking at somebody else’s bookshelves (I think there’s a reason for that). It’s likely more enthralling, though, if you’ve never spent a lot of time in used-book storesor any time in the gallery’s conceptually identical spring ’95 show.
2. Anthony Ausgang at MOCA/Clark & Co.Meyer Vaisman first thought up the juxtaposition of cartoon characters and fine art (actually, there’s probably some Hollywood precedent), and the idea of altering “Starving Artists Sale” schlock isn’t new, either, but at least the L.A.-based Ausgang knows schlock when he sees it, which in D.C.and at MOCAputs him way ahead of the pack.
3. Mike Lavine at Gallery 10They should have filed away the “Statement” handouts, because the raw Western-desert mysticism thing is nowhere visible in these clever, well-crafted, unfinished wood sculptures. Their spiky, sensual forms remind me most of quirky elements in comix abstractions, not of a “Surrealist’s dream.” Sometimes artistic intention simply doesn’t matter.
4. Dale Chihuly at Maurine LittletonVapid? Yep. Dazzling? You bet. I love the way the track lights work these things over.
5. Ross Halfin at GovindaThe kids are better than all right, they’re professionalsthey’re also no longer kids. If you think it’s tacky to frame a Rolling Stone cover, $400 will get you the real thingvery rock ‘n’ roll.
6. Scott Ponemone at Gallery KThe test case. I can’t think of anything these B&W/chromo photorealist pictures have going for them (it exhausts me to look at anything that so stinks of labor), but I can’t honestly say they’re less than contemptible. So here they are.