"BBL" by Nakeya Brown (2016)
"BBL" by Nakeya Brown (2016)

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Hamiltonian Gallery has quietly emerged as one of the most important art spaces in the District. Through its fellowship program, Hamiltonian finds new, mostly untested artists and gives them the opportunity to go big. Two shows on view—Nakeya Brown’s Some Assembly Required and Christie Neptune’s Ms. _______ (Interior) show why Hamiltonian is a required destination for anyone who wants to understand art from the Mid-Atlantic region.

Brown’s Some Assembly Required takes its point of departure from a photo of the artist’s Jamaican-born grandmother, seen in a faded photo of a factory that’s been blown up to wall-sized proportions. To this she’s added a series of photos in a line that depict household goods. The photos show objects shot on stools, in front of a flowery wallpaper, like portraits; taken together, items such as a photo album, folded towels, and canned ackee fruit demonstrate a kind of inherited cultural construction.

These photos are titled individually (“Assimilation Blues,” “An Empty Photo Album,” and so on, all 2016), but they’re best read as a single work. The same goes for “One Image Fits All (Part I and II)” (2016), two portraits of pantyhose made for black women. (Both Brown and Neptune are black, which is plain from their identity-inflected work, although a show highlighting work by women of color deserves an explicit mention, as it’s a rarity in D.C.) In fact, all these works plus three more, “Vernice Acquires the American Dream (Part I, II, and III)” (2016), all could be billed as a single piece of nostalgia. The works are handsome and show a clear if narrow purpose.

Brown’s work is earnest and straightforward compared to the artist with whom she shares the show. Neptune’s video and installation art rely on editing and ambiguity. Ms. _______ Interior is a mature show for an artist who is basically just starting out, one that conveys the swagger of more established artists.

Neptune gets a lot of work out of a simple sculptural conceit, a square made of fluorescent or neon tube lights, her “spotlight.” “Woman Sitting in Spotlight” (2016) features two photos, one of which depicts an older black lady standing behind the “spotlight,” along with a television set that shows a grainy, shaky image of the words, “To veil the threat of terror.” Another installation, “Woman Standing in Spotlight” (2016), comprises one photo and one two-channel video loop showcasing the artist herself standing behind her sculpture. Strong Bruce Nauman vibes echo across Neptune’s works.

In between her indeterminate installations is a hanging screen onto which the artist has projected “Command: Take Me to the Interior” (2016), the piece that ties the show together. The video depicts the artist staring out at the viewer, but the portrait is spliced with snippets of code—as if the police facade slips for a minute, revealing the truth underneath. That truth turns out to be impossible lines of code, commands stemming from literature and court cases, for example. Although it’s hard to process the source of these texts, they clearly draw on social justice.

Neptune’s show is a convincing self-portrait, drawn across multiple media formats. It’s a strong start for a new artist—something viewers have come to expect to see at Hamiltonian. The hope is that Neptune and Brown’s shows reflect a new commitment among D.C.’s galleries to show and promote artists of color, something that the city’s art scene has rarely done despite its demographics.

At Hamiltonian Gallery to Feb. 18.1353 U St. NW. Free.