“Sculpture Now—1995”

“Annual Juried Exhibition 1995”

Those concerned about art’s fate in the marketplace should visit the “Sculpture Now—1995” exhibition at Washington Square, the glass-and-steel structure on the southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street. This show of 40 works by 40 artists, distributed through the three levels of the office building’s atrium, demonstrates just how inhospitable the market environment is to fine art. There’s not a work in the exhibit that can compete with the Victoria’s Secret bra ads repeated with minimalist monotony along one wall of the main floor, and verbal ridicule of the sculpture by passersby is almost constant. Doctors aren’t expected to operate on street corners or scientists to research in shopping malls—artworks not conceived as public presentations deserve similar consideration.

Aside from the adversarial nature of its site, “Sculpture Now—1995” is a strong show. Selected by Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the National Museum of American Art, from submissions by members of the Washington Sculptors Group, the show presents a range of contemporary sculptural visions that stretches from traditional figural work to some tough, edgy constructs that are downright disturbing. It’s a tribute to Mecklenburg that there is some challenging and uncompromising work in the show, since the pressure to offer “inoffensive” art is always great in commercial spaces. It’s too bad that Richard Law’s hacked-wood and nail-studded torso, draped with a ratty bit of pink nylon, and Holly Rosenfeld’s distressed T- shirt on a plastic arch aren’t displayed near the lingerie ads where their critique could have provided mordant commentary on body images, but it’s a triumph of sorts that these pieces are included at all.

The exhibit includes a number of works that would allow layered readings if they were displayed in the proper environments. Sandy Willcox’s Pasture—a tiny landscape of a solitary tree is painted on a black paddle shape affixed to the top of a poleTikki, a construction of elm, pine, and chestnut, are reduced to mere cuteness by the show’s environment. Both works offer nuanced commentaries on nature that are difficult to extract in Washington Square’s commercial setting.

“Sculpture Now” is a group show whose works were selected according to neither medium nor theme. The criterion for submission here was membership in the Washington Sculptors Group; the criteria for selection were the juror’s preference and the limitations of the site. Certainly the work is, for the most part, serious, ambitious, and technically skilled. Mecklenburg’s juror statement proposes that the works can be seen as “regenerative,” and that they demonstrate “a conviction that art means something.” And for those viewers who can get beyond the distractions posed by the exhibit’s locale, Mecklenburg’s claims are well-founded.

These works might even have been chosen to provide an ironic commentary on the site, for many of them deal with natural themes. John Antone’s Mountain Poetry, positioned so that it leans out over the escalator well, plays against the artificiality of the spot; Sidney Hamburger’s bamboo Tapop’s Closet refers to organic structures; Constance Bergfors’ At the Water’s Edge depicts its titular locale in wood. The show also includes references to flowers, animals, specific natural and architectural sites, invocations of imaginary ones as in Joan Danziger’s Turtle Shrine and Martha Tabor’s Stone Altar, and a few figural presences like Bobbie West’s awkward and eloquent Woman and Bird.

Most of the works in the show are narratives and, using a variety of approaches, demonstrate how the modernist passion for formal exploration has blossomed into a postmodernist capacity to generate narratives from formal and material investigations. In fact, the exhibition’s predominance of narrative is what sets the works and their site at odds. Even if a work’s drama is largely provided by formal contradiction, as is the case with Sam Noto’s No. 4, in which a hunk of granite nestles in a rawhide sling, it requires more attention and engagement than a modernist commercial environment can provide—no matter how benevolent the intentions of its managers.

Another group show with a strong juror/curatorial vision is currently being presented in the more art-friendly environment at the Arlington Arts Center. The annual exhibition was curated this year by David Ross, director of New York’s Whitney Museum, who has made that institution a byword for politically correct and painfully fashionable art. It is consequently a pleasant surprise to discover the stylistic and emotional range of the work Ross selected for “Annual Juried Exhibition 1995.”

The show includes the work of 35 artists, but does not seem at all crowded in the AAC’s eccentric small spaces. Best of all, it presents many artists, primarily painters, who will be new to Washington art viewers. No single approach dominates, although nearly all are representational in some way, and many explore the structural and linguistic patterns of the craft in ways that have become typical of postmodern practice. For the most part, they don’t seem formulaic, and present distinct and often idiosyncratic visions. And those visions are tentatively humanistic, which may indicate a mellowing of postmodern cynicism in general or merely document a local variant.

Although most of the works here are paintings, drawings, and photographs, there’s a handful of sculpture, including three by artists—Holly Rosenfeld, Wendy Ross, and Sam Noto—who appear in the Washington Sculptors Group show. Rosenfeld—who presents more distressed underwear at the AAC—and Noto in particular have a feel for the unsettling and unnatural that gives their work an extra punch, and links it to much of the pictorial work with which it is presented.

The bizarre, the unnatural, and confrontations with the unexpected seem to be leitmotifs of this show. Bruce Widdows’ paintings Accelerated Evolution and Device for Amplifying Prayer may be the most extreme examples of this—both present visions that inhabit the space between the surrealist, the fantastic, and the futuristic. Sitting between Widdows’ works is Steve Zapton’s Columned Refrigerator, a wood sculpture of a refrigerator with a dish-towel through its handle, linoleum at its base, and a trash can full of Coca-Cola cans beside it. Thomas Segars’ LunchtimeFantasy II describes two headless men on a park bench watching the approach of a fe male leg. Wilfred Robert Brunner’s Not That Far examines hunger and homelessness through minimal images juxtaposed with the phrases “not that far from hungry” and “not that far from home.”

The same sort of vague destabilization pervades the photographs Ross chose for the exhibition. Carol Samour’s Artica and No Parking in Alley document what the artist calls the “visual debris of our frayed culture” in ways that capture how downright weird much of it is. On a different emotional level, Mary Kunaniec Skeen presents a haunting and troubling juxtaposition of images of women in Stolen Flowers, in which much is implied and nothing resolved.

Group shows are often a tedious experience. There are usually too many curatorial constraints and too little focus for such exhibits to be satisfying for viewers. “Sculpture Now—1995” and AAC’s “Annual Juried Exhibition 1995” are impressive exceptions, reflecting juror courage as well as focus and, in both cases, a coherent aesthetic and psychological vision. Next to a solo show by a major artistic personality, such exhibits are the great moments of the contemporary art world—they allow a new understanding of not just individual artworks, but of an artistic community as well. The shows discussed here are such moments, and they document the resilience of imagination and the vitality of good art in Washington.

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