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Group shows are typically organized around an explicit theme, or feature artists who hail from similar regions, art movements, or eras. The two titular artists of Seen/Unseen: Linda Stein and Mil Lubroth, now on view at Culture House, didn’t know each other or share any obvious connections, but the woman-led team of Latela Curatorial has demonstrated the ways they are thematically and aesthetically connected. It’s rare and refreshing to see an exhibit that strays from a straightforward curatorial outlook, and the lack of apparent linkages sparks unique insights into both artists’ work.
Introductory wall text lends some helpful background on these artists who are likely unknown to a wider audience. Linda Stein is an artist, educator, and activist whose work often focuses on her sexual identity and womanhood. Mil Lubroth was born in the States but resided and worked in Spain for much of her life until her death in 2004, drawing on the blend of cultures and visual references she found there. Both were Jewish Americans and often worked against the grain, dedicated to their own unique artistic explorations, which often ran counter to what was fashionable in the art world at the time. Their work reflects a sense of otherness and forging one’s own path.
A cursory glance at the works in Culture House’s gallery reveals that both artists used the human figure as a subject matter, but the forms are in some way obstructed. There are no labels on the wall to mark titles or who created which work, further fuzzing the boundaries between the bodies of work and creating another form of concealment. Despite this, it’s immediately apparent that two distinct viewpoints are being shown. Lubroth depicts silhouettes of bodies, which are richly textured and doused in multiple layers of silkscreen prints and paint. Nearly all of Stein’s work shows facial profiles, cropped so the eyes can’t be seen.
Though there’s no text to explain each work, a voiceover from Stein plays in the gallery, along with a slideshow of additional works of hers. Her monologue describes the obsessive measurements that go into her renderings of facial profiles, growing up gay at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and how her artmaking is a therapeutic and relaxing practice. Her words offer an intimate view of the person behind the art, and lend a different cast to her otherwise beautiful and harmless-seeming portraits.
One work by Stein, “Profile Landscape,” is painted onto a page torn from a book about brain waves, eerily echoing Stein’s musings on queerness being classified as a sickness at the time she made these paintings. Looking at “Profile of Virginia Woolf,” which features Stein’s profile motif rendered with a marbled ink effect, it’s impossible to shake her description of being depressed as she struggled with her sexuality.
Lubroth, too, is influenced by excavating history, once stating in an interview, “scratch the surface in Spain and you still find a Jewish-Arab culture beneath the Western one with its Catholic rituals.” Her silhouetted women figures stand in front of or march past backdrops made of architectural features or collaged elements like postage stamps or woven paper. A somewhat blurry screen print of a woman looking over her shoulder is flanked by bright Islamic patterns in “Bailadora de Andalucía a propósito de Ortiz.”
Throughout the show, each artist’s works are grouped together in their own sections of wall space, but face across from each other, in conversation. Though the pair never met, they make for suitable companions in this exhibition space, and though they both worked through themes of seclusion, they present a united front here. These two perennially overlooked artists can now be seen with fresh eyes, side by side.
Seen/Unseen: Linda Stein and Mil Lubroth, curated by Latela Curatorial, runs through May 14 at Culture House, 700 Delaware Ave. SW. Open Saturdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. or by appointment. culturehousedc.org. Free.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include the name of the group that curated the exhibit.