"Janine, Homage (José Nicolás)," by Muriel Hasbun (2015)
"Janine, Homage (José Nicolás)," by Muriel Hasbun (2015)

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Civil war would seem to be an unlikely backdrop for establishing an art gallery. Yet when Janine Janowski launched Galería el Laberinto in San Salvador in 1977 during the runup to the war, she found that conflict brought people by her shop—foreign reporters, the Red Cross—who took an interest in the modern art she showed. According to her daughter Muriel Hasbun, the San Salvador gallery thrived even as the nation suffered.

The Salvadoran Civil War is only part of the background that viewers need to understand in order to take in “Calling to You,” a photo show by Hasbun and Caroline Lacey at Civilian Art Projects. The other conflict viewers need to know about is the collapse of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design, where Hasbun taught photography and other subjects from 1995 through this year. Lacey, a recent Corcoran graduate and one of Hasbun’s students, was vocal in her opposition to Corcoran trustees’ decision to dissolve the institution. The two are culture war veterans.

Now, Hasbun and Lacey are collaborating on Hasbun’s latest effort, laberinto projects, which is the source of this photo show. Since Janowski’s death in 2012, Hasbun has been occupied with the legacy of el Laberinto, archiving the work that her mother owned and documenting the many shows by top-tier Salvadoran artists that she hosted. Lacey lives full-time in San Salvador for the time being. “Calling to You” is a photography show about building legacy and exploring grief—although it may be tough for viewers to necessarily see that.

“Janine, Homage (José Nicolás), 2013.01.16, El Congo” (2015) is a photo by Hasbun of a rich blue bust of Janowski, a testament to what the gallerist meant to artists working in San Salvador. It’s displayed side by side with “Homage (Rothko), 2014. 01.22, El Congo” (2015), a more mysterious print of a stony ochre surface. El Congo refers to the lake house outside San Salvador where Janowski lived, a place that emerges in both Hasbun and Lacey’s photographs.

All these facts of the show are impossible for a viewer to glean just by looking at the works. (I spoke with the artists at a viewing.) It’s hard to say what an audience is supposed to necessarily take away from Hasbun’s work, which is both deeply personal and rooted in El Salvador’s contemporary art scene. “Blue (Martorell), 2012.11.08, El Congo” (2015), for example, shows a shadow of a chair—a picture that Hasbun says references the kind of image favored by one of the Salvadoran artists that Janowski collected. There are glimpses of Hasbun’s mother throughout, from a photo of her lips (“Janine, 2011.12.11, San Salvador/Washington, D.C.”) to one of wisps of her silvery hair (“Janine, 2012.01.03, San Salvador”). But in most of her photos, there seems to be something unseen or unsaid, just offscreen. Hasbun favors brittle colors and fragile textures—film, glass, and reflections show up in a lot of her pictures.

Lacey’s photos are tonally distinct, much airier, but they otherwise follow faithfully in Hasbun’s footsteps. Her work includes several shots from the former Corcoran museum, including tightly cropped snaps of an Edward Hopper painting (“A Storm Is Coming (Hopper)”) and another one of an appendage from a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (“Repose, Corot, 1890. Vinyl Reprint. NGA, 2014.”) Like Hasbun, Lacey thinks like an archivist (she is Hasbun’s partner in laberinto projects.) Janowski’s estate and el Laberinto’s legacy are the subjects of several of her photos, but these photos tell only snippets of stories, hinting at family lore. Longtime D.C. viewers will find a more accessible entry to Lacey’s work through her Corcoran shots, which are familiar to anyone who spent time at the museum (and haunting, perhaps, for those who watched its demise). “Museum Purchase, the William A. Clark Fund” (2016), a photo of a backside of a framed painting or photograph from the Corcoran’s collection, puts it plainly: The Corcoran’s trustees turned their backs on the museum. 

The intersection between Salvadoran and D.C. contemporary art is a narrow one. Hasbun and Lacey shared the loss of the Corcoran and now are sorting through what Hasbun’s mother built together. No one who sees “Calling to You” will be able to make heads or tails of el Laberinto, or even the Corcoran mess, based on the show alone. The photos represent only a small part of a much larger effort, but viewers might feel excluded from a private conversation. Narrative drives the show—twin narratives, really—and the narrative is going to be lost on viewers. 

Through Oct. 22. 4718 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 607-3804. civilianartprojects.com.