Sometimes one image is enough to carry an exhibit. Here are my picks for the Top 10 images that appeared in photographic exhibits in D.C. in 2012.
1. Frank Hallam Day, ship hull images, Addison/Ripley Gallery
It’s difficult to choose the better of Day’s two photographs of ship hulls in “Waterline,” an exhibit loosely organized around the boundary between water and land, so we’ll call it a draw and put them jointly in the No. 1 spot. Ship hulls may sound prosaic, but in Day’s hands, their peeling expanses offer a symphony of colors and textures. One of them, “Ship Hull #90,” depicts a geometric arrangement of black, orange, red, and brown that, from a distance, looks convincingly like an abstract-expressionist canvas.
2. Franz Jantzen, “Wedding Special,” Hemphill Fine Arts
Jantzen’s exhibit “Ostinato” at Hemphill included a number of striking images, but the best was “Wedding Special,” which featured a decaying display in the grimy front window of a wedding photographer’s shop in Pittsburgh. It echoed Walker Evans’ famous image of photographs lining the front window of a portrait studio, but in Jantzen’s version, the top row of color photographs in the display are in fine shape, while the lower rows devolve into an eerie, blue chemical mess overlain with ghostly human forms. One can’t help but wonder why the wedding photographer let his window display go for so long, but we’re fortunate that Jantzen stumbled into it and rescued the odd tableau from obscurity.
3. Gillian Wearing, “Me as Mapplethorpe,” National Gallery of Art
Wearing’s 2009 image was the standout of NGA’s hit-and-miss exhibit, “The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years.” At first blush, it’s the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous final self-portrait, the one with a seemingly disembodied head and his hand holding a skull-topped cane. But upon closer inspection (or more likely, a nudge from the wall caption) the viewer learns that it’s an elaborate ploy, in which Wearing poses as Mapplethorpe by wearing a specially crafted mask. It’s a fruitful exercise pondering the nature of artifice and reality.
4. Ivan Pinkava, “Head,” American University Museum
Most of the works in this Czech photographer’s retrospective ranged from ponderous (a series of nudes) to unsettling (blood-spattered furniture). But Pinkava offers a clever hook with a few works that present a concise visual embodiment of an everyday phrase. In Pinkava’s hands, the image titled “Head” is a sports helmet tossed on the ground, a grim approximation of the aftermath of a beheading. For good measure, the helmet is surrounded by what appears to be sand—-think Ozymandias.
5. Ansel Adams, “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine,” Phillips Collection
The exhibition “Picturing the Sublime” was small and uneven — just 11 images from the holdings of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg. But one image made the show worthwhile, a photograph by Adams that isn’t one of his most famous. The image is a layer cake of contrasting moods and shades—a foreboding sky, bright jutting mountains, an impenetrably dark-shadowed hill, a row of delicate, evenly spaced trees, and, to top it off, a horse peacefully grazing at the foot of this glorious concoction.
6. Arthur Drooker, “San Ignacio Miní, Misiones, Argentina ,” Art Museum of the Americas/OAS F Street Gallery
Drooker’s images, taken with a digital infrared camera, offer a broad and deep survey of Latin American ruins. The finest image is of the San Ignacio mission in Argentina; Drooker combines rigid symmetry with infrared imaging’s ghostly haze and an eerily flat perspective that smartly pairs the mottled textures of stonework with a cloud-pocked sky in the background.
7. Andrew Moore, “The Aurora, Brush Park Neighborhood,” National Building Museum
Striking images abound in Moore’s project documenting Detroit’s neglected and crumbling landscape of classical architecture. But one that stands out for its pairing of ethereal and tangible—-and for its sheer improbability—-features a mysterious fog swirl that envelops a three-story apartment building in the Motor City’s Brush Park neighborhood, a once-wealthy enclave that has been deteriorating, not so gracefully, for decades.
8. Massimo Vitali, “Rosignano 3 Women,” Corcoran Gallery of Art
The Corcoran’s frothy, summertime exhibit, “The Deep Element: Photography at the Beach,” was chock full of famous photographers drawn to sand and surf. The Italian-born Vitali portrayed a beach near Livorno in hyper-detail, using a palette of nearly unreal shades of blue and punctuated by the absurdist pairing of frolickers and twin nuclear-plant towers in the background.
9. E. Brady Robinson, “Jerusalem Model A.D. 66,” Addison/Ripley Fine Art
Robinson, a photographer based in Washington and central Florida, documents the Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park in Orlando. Some of her images in “Click: Space & Time” – an exhibit of how photography represents “two-dimensional space at a fixed instant in time” – are Martin Parr-inspired deadpan photographs of park visitors. But her most impressive photograph features a scale model of ancient Jersualem, compellingly disorienting for its mixture of human-sized figures among the miniatures.
10. Vincent Lee Smith, from “24 Hours East of the River,” PhotoWorks Gallery
Smith was one of five members of the Exposure Group African American Photographers Association to collaborate on a project documenting Wards 7 and 8 for one rainy 24-hour period on Oct. 19, 2011. Several of the images in the show were noteworthy, but the most striking was one infused with irony worthy of Robert Frank—-a Metro bus covered with a Wells Fargo ad touting “financial planning” and “business banking” as it unloaded workaday passengers onto a sidewalk strewn with chewing gum and litter.
It’s also worth pointing out a few non-photographic works that stood out in this year’s Washington-area visual-arts scene:
Video art: Terri Weifenbach, “Blue,” at Civilian Art Projects
Weifenbach, a Washington photographer, moved on to video with three time-lapsed minutes of footage taken in a small corner of a pond. As is her signature, Weifenbach keeps the scene out of focus, an approach that pays dividends when it produces tiny reflections of sunlight in the shape of little O’s, like the symbols for cities on a map. Equally impressive, Weifenbach gently shifts the plane of focus in and out, providing consistent visual interest and even a brief (and literal) moment of perfect clarity.
Video art: Andrea Chung, “Come Back to Jamaica,” Art Museum of the Americas/OAS F Street Gallery
As part of an exhibit marking the golden jubilee of Jamaica’s independence, Chung contributed a video work that tweaks a late-1970s Jamaican tourist-promotion commercial memorable for its romantic imagery and soothing music (“Come back to Jamaica, your new island home”). Chung keeps the audio intact but excises each of the (black-skinned) characters, leaving blank voids that suggest the silhouettes of Kara Walker and which cleverly scrutinize tricky issues of of race and class; incongruously, the commercial’s music is more Mormon Tabernacle Choir than reggae, and the imagery includes polo, lavish dinner settings and ballroom dancing even though the country ranks in the bottom third of GDP per capita among countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sculpture: Cherish Pennington, “Solace,” Corcoran College of Art and Design
In the graduating exhibition for the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Pennington offered a remarkably simple yet mesmerizing visual conceit—a couple sheets of cellophane hanging from the ceiling, facing a narrowly targeted light source. The light reflected back on the wall as a shimmering, constantly changing form—-a work that was elemental and timeless.
Mixed media: William Christenberry, “Alabama Wall,” Hemphill Fine Arts
The tireless artist-chronicler of southern themes included one of his finest pieces in this Hemphill retrospective — a 1975 matrix of 32 rusted signs advertising snuff. It was a reverse Andy Warhol, in which a standardized consumer image was morphed in appearance, only this time with changes primarily created by natural forces rather than by the artist’s hand. The wall-spanning work was positioned to overlook the rest of the exhibit—a perfect choice to signal its importance.