D.C. was built on DIY. Do-it-yourself was the perfect spirit for the District when times were mean and lean. But the city’s changed. There’s intense competition for the warehouse and downtown spaces where artists and musicians once built a scene without much or any institutional support. With costs rising and spaces disappearing, it’s harder to do it yourself without doing it with developers. These days, the spirit animating the DIY scene is closer to DGAF—and Joseph Orzal and Nora Müeller have the fewest fucks to give.
Operating under the name NoMüNoMü, Orzal and Müeller have assembled art shows in informal spaces in LeDroit Park and Ivy City. You could call them pop-ups or house shows, but those terms might be too formal for what Orzal and Müeller have been doing. At least one prompt from NoMüNoMü simply asked artists to show up at a given time with art. While that sounds simple (almost naive, even), the District’s art scene hasn’t felt this kind of raw charge in years.
“Gift Shop,” a group installation at Transformer assembled by NoMüNoMü—the collective’s biggest and most considered show yet—features work by some 20 artists. “Gift Shop” is self-aware about its status as a collaboration with a brick-and-mortar arts incubator and gallery. The show confronts the idea of the museum gift shop, a locus for the invisible hand that guides the art world. With “Gift Shop,” NoMüNoMü turned Transformer into a dollar-store for conceptual kitsch.
This isn’t the first gallery show to lambast the fine art world for its tchotchkes, and it won’t be the last. NoMüNoMü’s “Gift Shop” is more interesting for the fact that it resembles a totalistic environment by a single brand. Kaliq Crosby’s “Custom-Airbrushed Prince T” (in an edition of three) belongs side by side with Alex Von Bergen’s “Tan-Line Gradient Studies,” a series of mugs that depict horror-show tanning accidents. The vibe at “Gift Shop” is urban, childish, hyperactive, neon, cheapo, and garish. It looks a bit like the Durkl menswear shop at Maketto through the lens of Lisa Frank or a Trapper-Keeper.
While the museum gift shop may be an easy target, NoMüNoMü took advantage of the theme to pull off an elegant installation. Georgie Payne’s “Beach Towel” appears to be suspended by one of Meagan Coleman’s “Robebaby Shibari Ropes,” blurring the lines between curation and collaboration. The comic interior architecture of the space, designed for the most part by Rachel Debuque and Justin Plakas (together as Plakookee) gives the show a satisfying, cartoonish atmosphere—like walking into an Elizabeth Murray painting.
Orzal and Müeller have a direct line to some of the youngest artists in the city: Myles Loftin, whose “80s DMV Prom Portraits” are exactly what you’d expect them to be, stopped by the gallery’s May opening on his way to prom. And, despite the anything-goes attitude, NoMüNoMü is holding up a proud D.C. tradition. This collective is holding down the space once occupied by the likes of Signal 66 and Meat Market Gallery—yesterday’s experimental sites—even if the spaces are something that Orzal and Müeller are inventing as they go.