"Thieves Like Us" by Eames Armstrong (2016)

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The armed guards at the opening of Perversion Therapy didn’t go unnoticed by anyone at Flashpoint. Chalk it up to the persistence of the insane #Pizzagate conspiracy, whose rabid subscribers still dog anyone associated with art in D.C., even weeks after the lies were put to rest. Or call it a sign of the dark turn the city has already taken under President Donald Trump. Maybe private security will soon be as ubiquitous as white wine in plastic cups at gallery shows in the District.

It’s almost as if Eames Armstrong saw it coming. Perversion Therapy, a show combining her paintings with performance by John Moletress, seems to wink at the hangups of the incoming Republican administration. Armstrong’s paintings in particular confront the notions of boundaries and identity and what counts as ordinary (and who gets to decide). The figures in her paintings stare out, as if they are challenging the viewer: go ahead, say something. It’s as if they’re waiting for Mike Pence to walk in.

“We are in the bathroom!” (2016)—Armstrong’s titles often read like cheery texts from a party—features six figures of indeterminate status loitering in the loo. They look blank and expectant, to the extent that emotions can be assigned to figures that look like they’re all wearing the same emoji face. Armstrong’s paintings are naïve, but they aren’t unserious, even if the figures themselves aren’t taking anything seriously. They look vaguely deviant (why’s everybody in the bathroom?) and possibly brainwashed, in keeping with the allusion to the “conversion therapy” in the title of the show.

The five figures in “We did it!” (2016) linger like the ladies of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” their body parts intermingling with the indeterminate space around them. Armstrong’s paintings are a happy-go-lucky queer-fauvism, all mega-intense brushstrokes and delightfully girly palette. Her figures are feminist like the work of Dana Schutz and zany like portraits by George Condo, although Armstrong’s style is less painterly than either.

That figures for an artist known better for her performance work, but don’t discount her painting—especially her color work. Or the narrative assertiveness of paintings such as “If This Dark Age Conquers, We Will Leave This Echo” (2016), in which her figures appear to be lost in sex without depicting anything like fucking.

One problem with Armstrong’s paintings is that there’s so many of them—20 in fact. It’s an awkward number. There are too many paintings to sustain the theme without testing it, like variations on a theme. There aren’t enough paintings to overwhelm or obliterate the viewer or make a compelling point through repetition. Taken altogether, some of them seem redundant.

There are more than enough of Armstrong’s paintings to justify a solo show, however, and Moletress’ “Untitled” (2016) video artwork—a film that captures a couple engaging in puppy play—doesn’t add much to the gallery presentation. (The artist also led performances in the gallery on two nights.) Simply showcasing men (one “dog,” one “puppy”) biting and barking at one another is more than enough to freak out our new Vice President, but it doesn’t meet the high bar for provocative video art. 

At Flashpoint Gallery to Feb. 4. 916 G St. NW. Free.