This year’s Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran “Options” biennial marks a homecoming of sorts: After a five-year absence, Paul Brewer, curator of this year’s show, returns to the city where he previously served as director of college exhibitions at the Corcoran Museum of Art. And with this year’s show, the organization has a shot at dispelling the controversy that marred the program’s last outing.The year prior to 2005’s ill-fated “Options,” then curator Philip Barlow aired a few prejudices in an interview with the Washington Post. He said he wouldn’t consider any artists for “Options” who had participated in the various city-funded projects that peppered D.C. with hundreds of animals—decorative donkeys, elephants, and pandas, most of which still linger in dirty disrepair around the city. Taking a stand for those animals (or perhaps for the city), the WPA\C benched Barlow, a collector whose support for D.C. artists is almost unparalleled, and brought in art historian Libby Lumpkin, whose work as a curator has mainly centered on Las Vegas and southern California.
It’s a surprise, then, that a show that signals a return to form features so few artists who call D.C. home. “Options” was originally staged as a hyperlocal biennial, but it has since grown into more of a revue of artists from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.. Three of the 10 artists selected hail from Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art; another three study or teach at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University. Nevertheless, with just 10 artists’ work on display—half the number of “Options 2005”—the show is tight. It’s also, unfortunately, rather light.
René Treviño’s Propaganda Series, for example, plays on identity politics from a perspective that doesn’t get a lot of airtime: Treviño, a gay Mexican-American, grew up in red Texas. His wall-mounted drawings (126 in total) address themes of Mexican identification, U.S. integration, and homosexuality—the last element signaled by an overabundance of pink acrylic. Folkloric heroes appear as sex symbols, conflated as they are with the pornographic images that share the wall. Treviño’s affinity for visual puns is evident in the use of the rooster, a symbol for sexual virility that also resonates in Mexican culture; another print features the black silhouette of the soldiers erecting the flag at Iwo Jima, but the Stars and Stripes appear in pink. Treviño’s designs are clean, but they are not evocative of much more than the constituent parts—gay Treviño, Mexican Treviño, Texan Treviño—and these are all rendered coolly, at an analytical remove.
His prints are all rendered well, however, which is more than can be said of Cory Oberndorfer’s collages. His crude pieces, which pair photo images of roller-derby girls with pictures of candy, tread on retro iconography, the sort of DIY décor that might decorate a college co-op bulletin board. But irony doesn’t rescue Oberndorfer’s poor compositions. Neapolitan is a technically better work: Using the ice cream palette suggested by the title, Oberndorfer depicts the rough outlines of three roller girls skating in three panels (strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate). But his message isn’t any more clear in this piece. He’s not expressing a Suicide Girls–esque appropriation of fetish culture. But he’s also not thumbing his nose at these girls, à la Laura Sessions Stepp or Caitlin Flanagan. It’s feminine work without any broader feminist significance. Oberndorfer may, in fact, just really be into roller-derby girls.
A different set of politics concerns Anne Chan, whose Private Conversation tracks office scuttlebutt. She’s installed an entirely unnecessary pair of false cubicles for the piece, building them out of interlocking business cards altered so that her name, or variations thereof, is listed for every position within the pseudo-company. A readymade set of chairs and desks would have certainly sufficed for the piece, because its point is the accompanying sound installation. As if she were writing an overheard-in-the-office segment, Chan has recorded a number of conversations—among them, a telephone complaint about one employee’s poor performance and an office gossip session. In a particularly witty stroke, Chan even recorded the chimes of an IM conversation. At least with regard to this piece, Chan’s strong ear for dialogue doesn’t lend itself especially well to a visual art format—the business-card installation, in particular, is distracting at best.
Kathleen Shafer’s politics are more muscular. Her work is historically inclined: She photographs airports, which have had a long history in the art world, whether as sites that modernists envisioned as hubs of life and activity or as the endgame in the earth-art movement. (Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash while scoping out a site for one of his projects, once proposed a piece near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that would only be visible during takeoffs and landings.) In Dulles Tower View (Ocean Park), Shafer expresses a preference for the minimalist take, finding a perspective on Finnish designer Eero Saarinen’s gorgeous terminal at Dulles International Airport that flattens its commanding swoop. Saarinen’s masterful design, in Shafer’s hands, becomes merely another aspect of the landscape transformed by global commerce.
Siobhan Rigg’s contraption, The People’s Electrification Administration, aspires to social significance: It’s an electric bicycle that powers a portable DVD player. By riding the bike, the viewer powers videos featuring man-on-the-street interviews in which people are tested on their knowledge of where electricity comes from. No one knows the answer, and the work’s humor—it’s a piece about electricity being displayed in a gallery in the Pepco building—situates it within the tradition of idea-art man Hans Haacke.
Politics and sustainable living also define Sayaka Suzuki’s scolding 907: 780 Chickens, 5 Cows, 18 Ducks, 2 Geese, 20 Pigs, 7 Rabbits, 29 Sheep, 46 Turkeys. The artist hangs that many black, gray, and olive-colored stuffed animals as a heavy-handed critique of animal slaughter. But the precise subject is vague—for instance, these numbers don’t scale to the levels killed by commercial farming, the usual topic in agriculture debates. The act of eating meat might be on trial, but whether or why that’s the case seems to be beside the point.
Fortunately, Eli Kessler and Taylor Baldwin have been given the front gallery to add some welcome levity. Baldwin’s drawings mock the fine-lined, detailed stylings of comic-book artist Geof Darrow, and his concerns aren’t far removed from the pop realm, either. Baldwin’s technically up to the task, but proficiency isn’t enough to distinguish his work from the crowded field of young artists whose drawings ironically cite pop culture. His sculpture War Saguaro, on the other hand—a funky robot made up of drum-kit hardware, a snare drum that serves as projection screen for a film, and Magisculpt cloud with lightning bolt—is unique and ha-ha funny. Kessler’s sculptures account for the other clever entries in the show. One imagines the havoc that Kessler could pull off with a real budget, given the promise shown by Drama Club Dress Rehearsal, an animatronic carnival player that would make prankster-sculptor Robert Arneson proud.
Neil Feather’s work manages to bridge the gap between stern and frivolous. His sculptures are dense, dangerous-looking things, jury-rigged from springs and spare parts, that might be antique torture devices if they weren’t musical instruments. Each instrument becomes a unique work when played, as the music—in Feather’s work, something loosely defined as a progression of sounds—changes according to chance. In Number Five, a motor turns a spring from which a bowling ball is suspended; as the bowling ball turns, a rubber ball that hangs from the bowling ball smacks either a drum supported by a spring or a spring sitting on top of a drum. Pony, his best work on display, is an abbreviated Rube Goldberg device that produces a minor arpeggio and, incidentally, the sound of a galloping horse. Music played by Feather’s objects fills the gallery, sometimes overwhelming the experience of another piece—such as when Number Five occasionally explodes in a jarring cacophony as bowling ball strikes spring.
This year’s “Options” marks a shift. The show’s sponsor, the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran, will soon be rid of its backslash baggage—in September, the two institutions agreed to go their separate ways. WPA\C’s title will be trimmed to Washington Project for the Arts, the original name bestowed by founder Alice Denney in 1975. Brewer’s choices haven’t brought the biennial closer to home, though. If it’s a given these days that a show of D.C. artists features individuals from well outside the city, so be it. But given the expanded range of possibilities, it’s a surprise that the artists selected are producing such safe work. In this show, the political is the personal, but the political isn’t all that compelling.
Did Senga Nengudi get the shaft? Ask veteran art watchers to name the first installation artist to hang objects in stretched nylon, and you’ll almost certainly hear the name Ernesto Neto. Neto, who showed at the Venice Biennale in 2001, began exhibiting in the late ’80s, a good decade after Nengudi discovered the form that became Neto’s trademark. In the ’70s, Nengudi hung pantyhose, pinning legs to walls and stretched them taut with sand bulging in the tied-off waist; the sculptures sag toward the ground like testicles. Had Nengudi been born a man like Neto, would people only now be rediscovering her sexually ambiguous, visceral, organic sculptures?
It’s one question raised indirectly by “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” a show whose truest revelations are indirect. Assembled by Connie Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the exhibition—now on view at the National Museum for Women in the Arts—features works by more than 100 artists from across the world whose art touches on the subject of the feminist revolution, however loosely considered.
If the hours and hours of video art on display in the galleries are any indication, the feminist revolution was televised. A great deal of the work was made by artists who were not merely exploring new political boundaries but also new technology, and the results were often fumbling. But the video that survives of Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks), a simple performance in which she tracks blood in two great arcs along a wall, gives us insight into an otherwise ephemeral production (and one of the great feminist artworks).
Other works reveal feminist art as perpetually testing the progress claimed by women over the century. It’s not too out-of-bounds to consider a piece like Valie Export’s Tapp und Tast Kino meeting with the same disappointing results today as it did in Munich and Vienna in 1968. For the performance, Export strapped a shadow-box theater to her chest as if it were a bra and invited viewers to reach inside, if they so wished. Viewers—men—are shown reaching inside with glee, groping her breasts with juvenile abandon.
Export’s explorations of public and social space should be considered alongside the work of her more famous male peers, like Vito Acconci. It’s a shame, then, that this work is crowded out by so much video art that is primarily important in a historical and political context, not an artistic one. Rebecca Horn’s video work—in which she transforms the body into sculpture through dryly sarcastic, simple performances—ought to merit her consideration alongside better-known male post-minimalist artists like Bruce Nauman and William Wegman. A show that stops and starts with second-wave feminist art, WACK! does more to educate than it does to rehabilitate or revise. But it offers plenty of opportunities to see work, perhaps for the first time, by artists who should be household names.