Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

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Blockbuster art shows ruled 2006. It’s hard to think of a year in recent memory packed with so many important, crowd-pleasing retrospectives—Cézanne, Robert Bechtle, Charles Sheeler, Henri Rousseau, Anselm Kiefer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, dada, John Constable, Joseph Cornell, and many more. Add the excitement surrounding the reopening of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in July, and it was inarguably a bonanza year for academicians and institutions.

Mind you, those shows mostly asserted the primacy of context, recasting once-familiar artists as regionalists—completely shaped by their place of birth and their specific historical moment. Meanwhile, Washington’s remaining commercial galleries have increasingly shown decorative objects, often based on art-historical stylistic mashups. Both of these trends have arguably eroded belief in an artist’s capacity for self-determination and meaningful institutional critique. What’s left is an unflattering image: Artists in general—and in D.C. in particular—must be impotent, un-self-aware opportunists.

Of course, some artistic demotions can be healthy. Take, for example, the new image of Marcel Duchamp that emerged from the “Dada” retrospective at the National Gallery this past spring. Over the course of the exhaustive survey of the international dada movement, Duchamp’s trademark strategies—machine drawings, puns, found objects, and collage—began to merely look symptomatic of something that was already in the air. The show paradoxically broke an international impulse down by region, showing how shared ideas and local conditions merged in all of the movement’s various manifestations.

In the case of Henri Rousseau, the National Gallery’s “Jungles in Paris” show rightly tried to depict the artist as a product of sensational media culture and colonialism. But in providing room after room of his strange source materials—picture postcards, popular magazine illustrations, taxidermized animals—the exhibition tended to endorse the tired, popular view of Rousseau as an idiot savant who accidentally stumbled on a new way of picturing things, ignoring the deliberateness of Rousseau’s self-presentation and robbing him of his radicalism, his deliberate combination of disparate alien influences and images to forge a new pictorial language.

There were exceptions to this contextualizing trend. Over the summer, the Hirshhorn’s “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” inexplicably tried to present Kiefer as some sort of mystic seer, tapping into world mythologies, kabala, and alchemy to make open-ended, universalist statements. Of course, to present this picture of Kiefer, curator Michael Auping had to overlook all sorts of key details and downplay whole swaths of Kiefer’s production—say, anything that involved an SS uniform or a U-boat or photography.

By far the most apt expression of the valuing of place over individual artists, hierarchies, or movements could be found in the newly reopened Museum of American Art. Here, a show of William Christenberry’s photographs and eerily evocative dream buildings—conical apparitions and obelisks dripping with white encaustic, invariably resembling hooded Klansmen—currently rubs shoulders with several adjacent rooms of folk and outsider art from the South. Paintings by early modern masters like Arthur Dove and Edward Hopper inexplicably take up residence next to canvases by illustrators and also-rans who were clearly on a different page altogether. It’s the American experience, silly, not some idea about artistic discourse, avant-garde cultural production versus traditional picture-making, or, uh, even vague notions of quality or relevance.

Local artists, on the other hand, should be so lucky. The city lost two major venues in one year: February brought the demise of Fusebox, the gallery that anchored the 14th Street NW corridor for half a decade, and this December, for director Cheryl Numark to take a much-needed vacation, the world—or at least her Chinatown gallery—had to come to an end.

At other local galleries, there have been a number of shows of competently executed canvases by painters apparently looking to do nothing but, well, competently execute a canvas. Take Steven Cushner’s show of recent work at Hemphill—a thoroughly respectable extension of the glyphlike, drip-laden acrylic paintings for which he’s already known. The best of these paintings—All the Paintings #2 (2005), for example—obscurely, through a pattern of tiny, staggered rectangles, looking like Post-it notes in the margins of an art-history text, hinted at how Cushner thinks about the relation of his work to all of the collected works of the canon—or even the relation of all of his works to one another. The pieces overall were mature, but a little familiar and a little precious.

Ditto for Maggie Michael at G Fine Art, who showed a modest expansion of her set of graphic motifs, including swoopy calligraphic lines and airbrushed arcs in addition to her trademark poured, sagging, and occasionally bursting pools and bubbles of latex paint. Like Cushner, Michael knows how to paint; she’s got a sure-footed empathy for it and can be reductive and richly allusive simultaneously. But she’s also guilty of the strategy that so many young painters have exhausted in the last decade or so. Michael views the picture plane as a flat, featureless arena in which to let a few disparate graphic motifs tangle with one another.

So painting has been popular, but it’s also been in a rut, and it’s tended to enforce its status as a commodity, ready for bedroom, office, or breakfast nook. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Let’s remember that this is, in fact, how most art exists: as an object in the world, meant for consumption or exchange. It’s just that a lot of D.C. gallery culture seems quick to say, simply: Yes, we’d like to sell you some colorful objects.

As for artists who attempted to critique gallery culture—well, Conner Contemporary’s “Whippersnappers” show this past February and March inadvertently succeeded in pointing out everything that’s annoying about disaffected young artists. There was one notable exception: Matthew Sutton’s brilliant piece A General Inventory of CVS Recalled by Memory, in which the artist attempted to reconstruct the contents of his neighborhood drug store item by item, thereby revealing the limits of human memory, the role of stereotypes in thinking, and the creepy interchangeability of contemporary retail chain stores. The rest of the show consisted mostly of lame one-liners that weren’t so much parodies as celebrations of popular culture, without any evident awareness of the history or implications of the intersection of gallery culture and mass media.

Other message shows, like “Baltimore Exchange” this fall at the Warehouse Gallery, or this month’s “Consume” at Flashpoint, never rose to the requisite level of believability. Here’s a suggestion for young artists: If you’re trying to make a statement about commodification and the art market, it’s probably best to avoid staple guns, hot glue, monofilament, felt, and spray paint. You cannot critique a system if you cannot master—or at least effectively parody—its most basic norms of presentation.

So this is the state of our little corner of the world. The museum professionals continue to retreat into historicism; local gallery culture has either gleefully embraced the market for pretty baubles or has thrown up its hands, insisting on its own lack of power to make effective self-critical statements. Of course, this all sounds perfectly awful. The good news is that much of what is made, even when it’s not groundbreaking, is executed at high levels of quality. And there are also local artists working in performance, video, and across media—say, Kathryn Cornelius, Jefferson Pinder, and Jason Hughes—whose recent works might suggest what the future of local art will look like. Frankly, that future can’t come soon enough.