“Options ’95: Superbia”

The Washington Project for the Arts’ (WPA) much hyped and hyperbolized “Options ’95: Superbia” exhibition is a remarkably conservative show. In spite of the noise—actual and promotional—generated by the opening of this biennial survey of “emerging” area artists, the work is pleasing, accessible, and conventional. Many of the exhibit’s paintings are lively, even flirtatious, and there’s a vivid, superficial glamour to much of the media-derived imagery. What’s wrong with the art is only what’s wrong with the society that produced it: With its emphasis on media and suburban values, “Superbia” reflects a stupid, ugly, and alienated culture.

The show’s work seems old-fashioned in spite of its broad presentation of media hipness and the genuine integrity of many individual works. This may be due to its enthusiasm for the postmodern condition, whose very essence is a blank detachment bordering on indifference. Independent curator Alison Maddex, who organized the show for the WPA, claims that her enthusiastic attitude represents an art approach for the ’90s that includes “ego, self-esteem, and confidence.” In fact, the show is paradoxical: As a whole it is trivial and uninteresting, but many of the individual works are strong and represent intriguing artistic personalities. Unfortunately, these works have to struggle against crowding, sloppy installation, an unsympathetic site, and a lot of irrelevant cu ratorial rhetoric.

Sculpture is the most successful component of the show, most of which is installed at WPA’s auxiliary site, the Central Armature Works building at 625 D St. NW, one block east of the main WPA. The abandoned auto-parts factory was a splendid site for the WPA’s recent exhibition of art about the Holocaust: The derelict building appropriately reflected that show’s concern with cultural and individual destruction. But only those who use shopping malls as a reference point could consider these brick and block walls, exposed pipes, metal boxes, and grids a proper environment for painting and photography. Only the three-dimensional works hold their own against the site’s urban grunge, and works by John Antone, Patricia Satterlee, David Mordini, Lee Payne, and Elizabeth Turk successfully wrench viewer attention away from the surrounding gloom. Turk’s You Know Me is actually a computer-generated image—printed on vinyl and laid on the floor, it depicts rows of gun-toting figures rapidly receding toward a vanishing point. Consequently, it functions spatially rather than pictorially, and since viewers have to walk over it to get to some of the show’s other art, it’s interactive as well.

The sculptures by Antone, Satterlee, and Payne are almost modernist in their exploratory discipline and appreciation of form and material. But each has a postmodern twist that situates it in “Superbia” ‘s mediated, suburban world. Antone achieves this with his title, Planet X, and a sci-fi monster projected on a cloth circle suspended in the center of an elegant lattice-work globe. Satterlee also uses her title, Landscape Painting, as mordant commentary on the suburban environment: The work refrains from finger-pointing and attains a satisfying monumentality. Her installation is a series of cement plinths and wooden grids animated by wire mesh of various textures and sizes. Payne’s four sculptures would be more effective as allusions to the menacing undercurrents of suburban society if they were installed together. But even displayed as they are, the four—a grid of drawer-framed cast-stone male torsos, a series of giant ax-blades protruding from the wall, and two sets of stairs spiraling to nowhere—are visually compelling.

In Mordini, whose three figures Bondage, Chicken Woman, and Pearl are surfacing as the unofficial stars of the show, curator Maddex seems to have discovered an emerging talent raised and nourished on media-saturated postmodern culture, if not co-opted or defeated by it. On the contrary, Mordini’s life-size forms, carved from medium-density fiberboard and enhanced with pearls, mirrors, steel, and vinyl, blend the funky irreverence of Generation X with a poised sense of sculptural composition and an idiosyncratic personal vision. Although it may be a source unknown to the artist, the sculptures are reminiscent of the medieval Japanese Buddhist hell scrolls whose demons, themselves terrifying to look upon, exhibit an irrepressible humor in the presence of dreadful horrors.

The painting, photography, and mixed-media work surrounding these sculptural presences in the Central Armature Works’ two large rooms could serve as perfect illustrations for Frederic Jameson’s important essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Culture”—particularly its discussion of pastiche in postmodern art. Almost without exception, the works rely on comparisons of images from disparate sources: illustrations, other artists’ drawings and paintings, children’s stories, toys, and a range of ugly suburban kitsch. Where there aren’t juxtapositions, there are framing techniques provided by photography or layers, as in Rafael McKenzie Soares’ fine studies of athletic figures, which consist of transferred, photocopied images on canvas and wood that are distressed with spray paint, watercolor, or Wite-Out. There is hardly a single unaltered, invented image in the show. The message is emphatically, if obtusely driven home: Images come in endless, uninterrupted streams; no one image is any better than any other; and there is no reality behind the image, and consequently no unique individual creating it.

Many of the pictorial works employ some form of photographic process, but there are a few painters playing the game as well. Among those creating their own imagery, albeit usually derived from some popular or media source, I particularly admired the paintings and paintings/collages of Victor Sparrow, Pierre Richard, Susan Korpi, Susan Clay, and Michael Cantwell. In spite of what often looked like deliberate attempts to present meaningless, foolish, or unattractive subject matter, the images of these artists were reclaimed by a mastery of craft—brushwork, color sensibility, paint handling, or dexterity in composition. It would have been much more satisfying to have all of each artist’s works hung together, and with proper lighting: As presented, the visitor must hunt back and forth around large, cold, and ill-lit rooms and also check out the dozen or so pieces displayed in the bookstore area of the main WPA building to find all of an artist’s works. Small paintings are hung on narrow sections of brick wall or columns, under windows, above pipes and rafters. No work on the walls is displayed in a way that facilitates its appreciation.

The pastiche tradition of photomontage is well represented in a variety of photographic and manipulated photographic juxtapositions. The most interesting and skillful are those by Peter Brandon Lattu and Corinne Martin McMullen. In both cases, it was particularly frustrating not to be able to see all the artists’ work together—each has compelling and distinctive ways of enjambing disparate images that suggest underlying critical or poetic visions. Lattu chooses enigmatic images—old-fashioned magazine illustrations, a fuzzy Xerox of anonymous heads, a military photograph, a video image—and has a deft way of counteracting them through manipulation, layering them with other images, or painting them. Characterizing the choices is impossible, but the works’ effect is as confusing and dazzling as the media culture they reflect.

McMullen, on the other hand, tends to juxtapose images originally developed for cataloging or documenting information—diagrams, lists, numerical tables, charts—with photographs of vaguely industrialized landscapes or industrial activities. Sections of the work sometimes have the intricacy and delicacy of etchings, and their dense layers are rich with poetic potential. Both Lattu and McMullen reflect and critique the banalities and aspirations of media and texts without assuming either a hostile or a converted stance.

“Superbia” also includes several video installations whose sound fields overlap in the Central Armature Works’ back room, making the art viewing experience there physically painful as well as irritating. Since appreciation of video art requires time, the arrangement is counterproductive—one’s only desire is to escape from the noise and the visual disorder as quickly as possible. It may have been a (successful) attempt to replicate the experience of the suburban home in which each occupant has his or her TV tuned to a different channel, but it’s an appalling environment nevertheless. It does facilitate an understanding of why art generated in or inspired by such a milieu, as Maddex claims is the case with “Superbia,” is so lacking in insight.

In spite of its numerous irritants and air of superficiality, “Superbia” is an exhibition of fascinating paradoxes. The principal one is the manner in which the mood of bright insignificance saps the power of individual works. The show also demonstrates how the artist’s traditional tools of craft, focus, and interpretation can redeem even banal and indifferent subject matter—sometimes. But its emphasis on imagery derived from mass media and popular culture and its rejection of analytical or intellectual work deprives the visitor of much opportunity for thinking or feeling. Instead, with the exception of its sculpture, “Superbia” offers entertainment and distraction.

Shortly after “Superbia” opened, Washington was visited by Catherine David, curator of the upcoming 1997 “Documenta” exhibition—the world’s most important survey of contemporary art, held every five years in Kassel, Germany. The Documentas can be as confusing, contradictory, and uneven as “Superbia,” but there is never any question about the seriousness, ambition, and intelligence of the artists they present. Considered in an art as opposed to an entertainment context, “Superbia” does a disservice to Washington artists by failing to either give the work the respect it deserves or restrict the biennial assembly to artists whose work truly indicates potential for further development. In these hard times for culture, it’s disappointing but not surprising that the WPA concentrates on art as the backdrop for a party.