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“Alan Stone: Dive/Swim”

Arts’ Central Armature Annex

to January 6

We are all free-falling in Alan Stone’s world. We tumble from the distant past of childhood clatter through an alienating present into an uncertain future. Our signposts are lost joy, monumental tragedy, and meaningless chatter. Cold, white light, blackened surfaces and the far-off sounds of children at play combine in “Dive/Swim” to link memory and mortality.

Stone’s strongest work at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) helps us root around in our past and weigh our future. Less satisfying are pieces whose conceptual or art-historical foundations hold more interest than their translation into visual form.

The site-specific work, Dive, installed just inside the entrance to the WPA’s annex exhibition space, grips viewers between nostalgia and anxiety. Each of 10 floor-to-ceiling aluminum ladders in Dive holds a vertical triptych of a diver in a swimsuit, framed by the ladder’s rungs and frozen in a head-first plunge. The images are lit from behind with fluorescent tubes, emitting a skim-milky glow into the two-story space. The diffusion of light is soothing and invitingly open. But its cold, blue hue is disquieting and keeps viewers at bay.

This tension between intimacy and restraint is heightened by recorded sounds of children playing at a public swimming pool. The familiar but distanced sounds offer a romantic sense of freedom that Stone caps with the trapped pose and uncertain destiny of the divers. The voices are our memories, the pool our mortality.

Death approaches again in Band Box, an 8-foot cube whose sides have been cut away to reveal a jumbled pile of musty cases for marching-band instruments. A tape-recorded loop of playground noises again provokes nostalgia, while the instrument cases lie silent like so many caskets bulldozed into a mass grave. While Dive surrounds us with light and image, Band Box is more an object—an oversized reliquary for fragments of a universal past—even if you never played in a school band.

End-of-life themes are echoed again in Vigil and Judgment Day. A profoundly silent piece, Vigil links the living with the dead through its materials and construction. Its empty hospital deathbed, whose headboard displays two rust-brown chest X-rays, and its visitor’s chair are fabricated of chain-link fencing and posts. The bed and chair share a common leg, joining the fates of caregiver and cared-for. And viewers, by standing behind the chair and adopting the gaze of the visitor upon the empty bed, will ponder their own end rather than that of an imagined patient.

Judgment Day, a set of nine side-by-side thrones with trapezoidal seats and 8-foot-tall backs lit from behind, forms an imposing phalanx. On the opposite wall, Stone’s Falling Woman, another diving figure caught in midsomersault, sails toward the ground. At one level, Judgment Day critiques the Supreme Court with an almost over-the-top severity, both in lighting and form. But presented opposite a figure in descent, Judgment Day is not partisan politics. If the metaphor of death applies to Stone’s divers, then the imperious design of Judgment Day conveys the finality and solemnity of the high court’s decisions (seen in recent death-row cases), a reality check for those caught up solely in court intrigue or discussions about the appointment process.

Politics were initially at the heart of All Elbows & Knees, too, the room-size installation Stone has placed in the former livery stable attached to the Armature Annex. But here, Stone reaches for more universal truths. Conceived in 1993 as a response to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by their Serb neighbors, All Elbows & Knees includes dozens of plaster-cast arms and legs, painted black and piled in the center of the space. Around them on the ground at the room’s perimeter, other pairs of cast legs jut out from the wall, toes pointed into the dirt floor. Illuminated images of limbs, another diving figure, and corpses hang on the walls.

All Elbows & Knees is a warning. If the catalog did not call out the Bosnian conflict as the source for this work, viewers could easily see the Holocaust here or Stalin’s purges or Pol Pot’s mass killings or Rwanda. And if the figures in Dive plunge headlong into an uncertain abyss, the diving figure in All Elbows & Knees plunges into a type of annihilation in which the 20th century is well versed. Such devastation is our inheritance and perhaps our legacy.

In All Elbows & Knees, Stone demonstrates forcefully his ability to plan and take advantage of space to ratchet up the visual and narrative impact of his work. Placed at the far end of the building in a room of its own, the installation becomes a sanctum sanctorum, like a sacred burial mound at the farthest end of a Hindu cave temple. The notion of sacred ground also carries from the layers of pebbles covering the floor—the only space in the show with such an organic sensibility—and the darkness that envelopes the farthest end of the room.

Here at WPA, compared to its exhibition in slightly altered form at the Tartt Gallery in 1993, All Elbows & Knees becomes the site of tragedy. In a traditional gallery setting, the work was clearly artist-created. At WPA, Stone plants the possibility that the rubble and body parts may exist outside the realm of art.

The building in some ways is a co-creator with Stone of the exhibition. Stone’s work, in part, is about our place in a world that at once surrounds us and cannot be silenced, and yet is largely cut off from us. The structural flaws of the annex underscore this with gaping walls that cannot keep out the roar of the monolithic ventilation system next door and with incompletely blacked-out windows that permit pinpoints of light to play across their surface. In fact, the only light in the exhibition emanates from the work itself or leaks in from the outside.

Much of “Dive/Swim” ’s aesthetic derives from lighting, one of Stone’s strong suits. The bluish light from the many daylight fluorescent tubes embedded in the works infuses the entire space. Stone intends it to glow with all the warmth of black-and-white television sets seen through apartment windows at night. Late in the day, when the sun beams into the space through cracked wall boards, the cold light of Stone’s work becomes icy by comparison, and the world he has created, a lonely sideshow. And with temperatures in the space seeming to hover around 40 degrees on blustery days, the physical chill viewers feel adds to their psychological discomfort.

“Dive/Swim” does have its lighter side. The humor is particularly evident in Nekid—Stone says that’s how they pronounce “naked” where he grew up in Fort Smith, Ark. The piece is Stone’s take on Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase. Along the wall of a stairway, Stone has placed 12 X-ray illuminators, their exposed bulbs encased in pink gels. Stone also targets art history in Trying to Be God, where he intersperses images of hands from well-known works of art, including the Sistine Chapel, a Giacometti, and Guernica, with pictures of his own arm imitating the famous gestures. These pieces, although they provide comic relief to a somber show, rely heavily on viewers getting the central references. Stacked up against moving and complex work like Dive and All Elbows & Knees, these nods to the masters don’t carry their weight in either form or content.

While much of “Dive/Swim” is about the past as memory and the future as mortality, Stone does not neglect the present. He interprets it as so much commotion with little outcome. In both Washington Fountain and Swim, Stone captures and amplifies live conversations that are all but meaningless to the viewer, invoking a discomforting sense of isolation in the midst of many voices.

Washington Fountain is a satirical take on official D.C. A black, wooden podium that sports hot-and-cold faucet handles on one side and, on top, an unruly crop of shower heads sprouting like press-conference microphones. The soundtrack here is live broadcasts of police and other public-agency dispatchers, which send a constant din across the entire exhibition space. The static and incomprehensible code that constitutes the dispatches’ syntax is annoying and distracting, and precisely how Stone wants it. The clamor even invades the experience of viewing the nearby Vigil. You’ll want to turn off the noise so you can respond thoughtfully to the work. The constant crackling of dispatch radios prevents that.

You may also have second thoughts about accessing the Internet after viewing and listening to Swim, in which a computer-generated voice reads the text of a live chat as it scrolls, projected from a monitor, on the annex floor. Stone has erected a diving board at one end of the pool of text, inviting viewers to plunge into this lime-green sea of bit-bound conversation between individuals with names like Sol Dancer and Clicker. The Fembot voice drones on in sterile tones, chronicling who has left and joined the chat. But with all their comings and goings, chat-room denizens have little to say.

The scrolling, contentless Internet text makes of our need to connect, to dive into human discourse, something comically, unrecognizably abstract; but what’s underneath its rippling surface—when we hit the bottom—is concrete. CP