“All Together Now: Artists at Work in the Community”

The Ellipse Art Center’s “All Together Now: Artists at Work in the Community” is an extremely disturbing exhibition. The best objects in the show are provided by a 6-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, the best paintings were made by middle-school students, and the overall endeavor calls just about every traditional art assumption into question. “Problematizing” cultural production has been a favorite game of art critics and theorists for the past decade, but I have never seen deconstructivist concepts put into practice with such complexity and intelligence. Nor did I anticipate how uncomfortable the results would be—particularly for art specialists.

This investigation of community identity and creativity, which is what “All Together Now” partly attempts to be, is actually made up of four tangentially related and occasionally interpenetrating shows. They are: Paula Endo’s “Newcomers: Photo Stories From Arlington, Virginia”; Elaine Segal’s “The Vulgar and the Sublime”; Drew Model School students and Faylinda Kodis’ “Talking Walls”; and “Photos and Other Treasures,” photographs by Muriel Hasbun and works by Gunston Community Center After-School Program students. In each case, the presentations reverse traditional vectors of art authority, empowering the child, the student, the immigrant, and those, according to Segal, “whose role in society pretty much guarantees that they will never be officially consulted” on their aesthetic sense.

“Talking Walls” and “Photos and Other Treasures” expand on the artists-in-the-schools concept. These exhibitions combine the desire to connect students and art professionals with the hope that allowing young people to develop their innate creativity in constructive ways will prevent that energy’s diversion into anti-social behavior. The two projects seem to be fulfilling both objectives, thanks to the intensity of the artists’ commitment to the students and the thoroughness with which the programs are being instituted.

Talking Wall, the mural created by Kodis and the Drew Model School students, presents figures in an abstract landscape filled with cars, trucks, boats, planes, and covered wagons. The children’s primary and secondary color palette gives the work a bright charm, but the mural seems heavily worked and somewhat stilted in places. This wouldn’t be remarkable were it not for the inclusion of four preparatory sketches by unnamed students; these drawings possess such an exuberant clarity of line and spontaneous grasp of form as feeling that it’s hard to believe they weren’t made by more mature artistic personalities.

The two photo series by Hasbun, exhibited with box constructions and photographs by four of her students at Gunston, are the stars of the show. Born in El Salvador to a Polish, Jewish mother and a Palestinian, Catholic father, Hasbun presents two sets of images reflecting what she calls her “extreme sensitivity to the “irreconcilable.’ ” One set, “Todos los Santos (All the Saints),” examines her Catholic childhood, primarily through oblique, layered, and partially veiled references to Catholic Christian iconography. The “?Sólo una Sombra? (Only a Shadow?)” series, which derives from her Jewish ancestry, contains even more haunting and obscured images that dissolve and disappear into the light that washes over the photo surfaces—a potent visual metaphor for the fragility of memory. Although it’s hard to be absolutely certain based on so few examples, Hasbun’s students’ work seems to reflect the focus and imagination that characterizes her own—and which is essential to good artmaking.

Endo’s photodocumentary record of immigrant life in Arlington, on the other hand, lacks both focus and imagination. “Newcomers” offers general views of immigrant life in the Columbia Heights West community. The exhibit includes several family ensembles and individual portraits accompanied by excerpts from the subjects’ interviews with the artist or from their own writings. The stories beneath the photos are compelling, and ably capture the diversity of the late-20th-century immigrant experience. Without the text, however, the photos are inert, revealing little about the sitters and failing to provoke an aesthetic response. The artist is a third-generation Japanese-American, but the exhibit manifests neither the insight offered by outsider groups’ depictions of themselves nor the visual richness provided by the quasi-anthropological documentary projects of earlier eras.

Based on the objects selected for Segal’s “The Vulgar and the Sublime,” it’s tempting to make damning generalizations about aesthetic life in Arlington. Segal, a Vermont-based artist and National Public Radio commentator, designed this conceptual art experiment to give a random cross-section of Arlingtonians the opportunity to make artistic decisions. Twenty-two nonartists were asked to choose two objects, one “sublime” and one “vulgar,” and their choices, along with a notation of each object’s source and a brief comment explaining its selection, are displayed here. (“Sublime” and “vulgar” are supposed to be synonyms for “beautiful” and “ugly,” but of course they are not—a clumsiness characteristic of the project as a whole.)

Such ventures into grass-roots aesthetics have considerable superficial charm. There’s a sly implication that art professionals really don’t know much more than average citizens, and that even if they do, they lack a “common touch” that is implicitly superior. At a moment when art’s purpose in American society is the subject of heated debate, such a back-to-the-earth undertaking insinuates that artists may, after all, be unnecessary. The project’s stated goal is to broaden membership in the club that makes aesthetic decisions. It is hard to disagree with this goal—until you look at the chosen objects.

The best works in “The Vulgar and the Sublime” are the selections of 6-year-old Andre Turner and 9-year-old Sara Mascarenhas. They’re the best because they were chosen for their aesthetic—that is, sensuous—properties, and because of the passion with which Turner and Mascarenhas explain their choices. Turner’s sublime plastic race car is “clean and shaped like a carrot and you can push it fast,” while his vulgar plastic dumptruck with a mouth and tongue is condemned because “its tongue is green. Look at the dirty stuff in the back!” Mascarenhas selected a Scarlett O’Hara doll as sublime, because “the color green [of the doll’s dress] is so beautiful on her, she’s almost real,” and a leather purse with an elephant design as vulgar. She spoke like a young Clement Greenberg in her condemnation: “I hate the design….There’s no such thing as a green elephant! I don’t care what you do to this!”

Almost none of the other objects in the show were chosen for aesthetic reasons. Instead, there was a general fog of moralizing and piety that was almost as discouraging as the dullness (not to be confused with ugliness) of the objects themselves. I suspect Mascarenhas and Turner stand out because their individual tastes have not yet been socialized into the banal group-think that characterizes most of the other choices—including the rhinestone-studded cross and dollar sign submitted by Segal. Mascarenhas and Turner are also the only ones who are actually looking and making associations between objects and experience based on careful observation. This is the stuff of which artists—old-fashioned artists, at least—are made.

The neutralizing of idiosyncrasy in Endo’s immigrant portraits, in most of the “Vulgar and the Sublime” selections, and even in the middle-school children’s mural, is the disturbing aspect of “All Together Now.” As the energies of the multicultural critique and deconstructionism disassemble the traditional hierarchies of art, they have seemed to promise, at least indirectly, that the art made by newly empowered groups will possess more authenticity than mass-mediated, socially constructed products of either high or popular culture. “All Together Now” demonstrates that the opposite is the case—that popular culture and its easily assimilated sentimentality have won and can now be enshrined in a more democratically defined art culture.

But despite its discouraging aspects, it’s inspiring to consider the collaboration of Arlington County agencies reflected in “All Together Now.” As evidenced by Hasbun’s photos and Kodis’ paintings, the young people in these programs were exposed to artists of considerable technical skill. Those who participated in “The Vulgar and the Sublime” may begin to look at things with more awareness. The community photographed by Endo now has an additional identity as the subject of art. These disruptions of the status quo—particularly with regard to issues of personal and communal identity and the value of art education—also disrupt traditional ideas about art and its function, and call into question assumptions about the audience for art, the role of art and the artist, and the validity of disparate responses to art.

This uncomfortable aspect of “All Together Now” doesn’t allow easy conclusions. Instead, it suggests alternative reactions, formulations, and juxtapositions as well as the possibility of a new art order that we are only beginning to envision. Acknowledging the absence of answers, destabilizing critical certainties, empowering art outsiders: These are all things that the cutting edge has demanded for many years. “All Together Now” must figure, then, as a critical triumph as well as a provocative reflection of ongoing transformations in both society and its art.