To curator J.W. Mahoney, D.C. is all about symbols—and so is much of its art. “I didn’t read The Lost Symbol—-I couldn’t do it, it’s just too stupid,” he says. “But it was interesting that [author Dan Brown] picked up on that.”

At this point we’re kind of riffing. But Mahoney’s real point is that if you’re going to extract a narrative from the 130 artists found in “Catalyst: 35 Years of the Washington Project for the Arts,” you might see something he calls “speculative symbolism.” Which means? “‘I’m gonna do this and if it feels like it carries deep levels of meaning, then that’s what I’m into,'” the show’s curator says. “It’s not self-enforced weirdness—-it’s not that trip.”

The bigger narrative in the show—-which covers the long history of the arts organization—-is that D.C. is a robust alternative arts town. “It has been for a long time,” he says. “There’s a level of authenticity and eccentricity, and that’s really a nice thing to see. You see a level of  independence—-you don’t see anybody following trends.”

In the 1980s, for example, “no one was interested in post-modernism [in D.C.],” he says. “They were more interested in the Color School. They wanted to keep following their weird heads to weird imaginative places.”

So it’s not productive, Mahoney says, to think of D.C. art in terms of larger art trends, or even the larger art world. “If you think about music scenes like Athens or Austin, there’s lots of people doing different things.” For visual artists, he says, D.C. has a similar environment. “We don’t compete here. It’s sweeter than that. It’s stranger than that.”

One of the centerpieces of the show—-whose vast remainder John Anderson will dig into on this blog next week—-is “The Last Washington Painting,” Alan Sonneman‘s striking, apocalyptic depiction of a mushroom cloud erupting over Washington. Mahoney and Sonneman began looking for the 1981 painting earlier this year—-it’d been sold and resold, and hadn’t been seen since the 1980s. For a Washington City Paper cover story this summer, Maura Judkis put on her detective hat and tracked the painting down—-all the way to the Bethesda home of art collector-cum-hoarder Tim Egert, who was happy to lend the painting to the WPA for the show. Sonneman was of course ecstatic:

“When you make something you hope it’s going out to be appreciated and that people can see it. That’s why putting work in public places is great,” he says. “You do these paintings with good intentions, and then it’s out of your control. It functions as an object or a commodity, and anything can happen: It can end up in a closet, a hotel lobby, or some house in the woods of Vermont, and reappear years later. And then it will be seen again…That’s the wonderful thing we’ve accomplished.”

So what happened next? Nothing too sexy, it turns out. The painting was put in storage for a few months, and now it’s hanging in “Catalyst,” Mahoney says. One thing that you may not realize: The painting is an arresting 120 inches wide. Mahoney says the paintings on either side of it are “just as strange and just as interesting.” One is a portrait of Lilith by Margarita Kendall, the other a painting of a mysterious fishing boat by Greg Hannan. Judkis has her own follow-up on TBD.

Worth keeping in mind, Mahoney cautions: “This is not a best-off show. This is drilling down into the history of WPA and pulling up stuff,” he says. “I’m sure someone’s not represented because I forgot about them—-I’ll be falling on my sword right and left…I really mean this thing to exemplify but not sum up everything going on here.”

The exhibit is on view to Dec. 19 at the American University Museum.