While the art world is well aware of the exceptional museums that surround the Mall in Washington, D.C., the development of the local gallery scene remains something of a secret. It's easy to understand why: Most Americans' impressions of the District are formed by politicians who run "against" Washington, portraying the city as a gray government center, full of useless and entrenched bureaucrats. Fortunately for Washingtonians, the city is in fact a thriving, arts-infused metropolis.
In recent years the nation's capital has become a global center for information, medical and defense technologies (for example, most of the world's internet traffic goes through Washington's southern and western suburbs). In response to the newly moneyed class generated by these industries, several Washington galleries have inaugurated or expanded their programs in recent months
In the last year or so, Fusebox has opened and thrived, Numark Gallery has begun expanding to a spacious new building and G Fine Art has opened in Georgetown. The longtime Georgetown gallery Hemphill Fine Arts is also exploring expansion opportunities and Conner Contemporary Art hints that it is interested in new space as well.
In addition, independent shows hosted by young curators have also begun to appear regularly in the last year. Arguably, for the first time since the Washington Color School years of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, et al., Washington's contemporary art scene is worth tracking.
A fine example of an independent exhibition of Washington artists is "Fission/Fusion," a show that recently closed at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Affiliated with the Mexican Embassy, MCI's remarkable building was built in 1911 and boasts elegant murals (finished in 1934) and an organ room as well as exhibition galleries. The show, which was assembled by two independent curators, Berta Kolteniuk in Washington and Gabriela Molina in Mexico City, featured work by 12 artists (six from the U.S. artists and six from Mexico) who find beauty in the casual patterns of modern life.
The best works in the show were by two young Washington-based artists, Dan Steinhilber and Maggie Michael (who happen to be husband and wife). In one piece, Steinhilber adhered hundreds of tiny restaurant-sized duck sauce packets in a dense layer on a wall, revealing the variety of orange hues in ostensibly identical packets. A veteran of the "artpoint" show in Miami Beach last December, Steinhilber specializes in revealing hidden splendor in everyday commercial detritus; his debut solo show at Numark Gallery is scheduled for 2004.
As for Michael, she makes her abstractions by pouring latex house paint onto Plexiglas panels or canvases. The organic shapes that result explore the various forms of reproduction in the age of genetics. Michael has a big show slated for G Fine Art this fall.
Many other pieces in the exhibition challenge the way we look at things we've seen before. Mauricio Alejo, who is based in Mexico City and shows in New York at Throckmorton Fine Art, exhibits two photographs of simple geometric objects, apparently made of glass and surrounded by mysterious shadows. Alejo's earlier photographs of color X-ray images -- the type that might be made from an airport inspection checkpoint -- manage to find visual inspiration in what has become a wearying part of travel.
Hector Zamora starts with structure, often man-made, and then reduces and reduces it until he's left with the barest of architectural lines. His installation, apparently made of nylon fishing-wire-type thread, proves that highlighting barely visible lines within space can force the imagination to create the absent structures hinted at by the thread.
The internationalism of the contemporary art world is also reflected in recent shows at Fusebox and G Fine Art. At Fusebox were photos and video by Marisa Telleria-Diez, who has lived in Miami, Washington, Nicaragua and New York. Her work, with its depictions of the sky and the sea, evokes memories of Earth Art in general and of Roni Horn and Dennis Oppenheim in particular. In many photos, Telleria-Diez shows us the sky without showing us anything we haven't seen before. Her video, made during a commercial airline flight from Miami to New York, will also be quite familiar to anyone who has had a window seat.
Nevertheless, Telleria-Diez' photos are pretty without quite becoming beautiful. She also makes plaster sculptures that are similarly attractive though they don't seem substantial enough to merit repeated examination. The blue hue that radiates from the back of each sculptural piece provides enough quiet promise to leave me wanting to see how Telleria-Deiz expands on the pieces at Fusebox. Prices run $800 for 8 x 8 in. photos in editions of five to $12,000 for the largest sculptural installation.
At G Fine Art last month was a show of new paintings titled "Universal Blood" by Astrid Colomar, who was born in Spain and lives in both Barcelona and Washington. Her pleasantly blue wash monochromes are mounted on honeycombed aluminum, and never manage to quite evoke enough depth, feeling or transcendence to succeed. The paintings are priced in the $1,800-$5,500 range.
For "Skin Deep," which remains on view till Apr. 26, 2003, Numark Gallery has gathered works by 10 artists who explore ethnicity. Artists in the show include the well-known African American artists Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as newcomer Iona Brown, who has made an impression with her works on paper of geisha in blackface. Ken Ashton's photos from the early '90s of empty theaters in near-abandoned D.C. neighborhoods are memorably haunting. Other participants are Sanford Biggers, Tana Hargest, Dinh Q. Le, Nikki Lee and Ayo Ngozi (Ashton and Brown are D.C.-area artists).
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A notable theme in Washington museums right now is the failure of the big show and the success of the small show. The National Gallery of Art's retrospective of douard Vuillard, Jan. 19-Apr. 20, 2003, is a bloated exposition of 220 works, complete with a monstrous 502-page catalogue that would make even the team behind Matthew Barney's curatorial coronation blush. The show, which could have been easily cut to a manageable size by lopping off the last three rooms of Vuillard's late work and by showing fewer of his mediocre prints, is nevertheless beautifully installed and presents many of Vuillard's finest mid-career canvases. When he paints mundane moments of middle-class Parisian life, Vuillard excels. But late in his career, when Vuillard focused on portraits of prominent Parisians, his work descends toward Thomas Kinkade.
Also at the National Gallery is a puzzling retrospective of Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Mar. 2-June 1, 2003. The show features only about a half-dozen major paintings, and focuses mostly on Kirchner's works on paper (many of them from the NGA collection or from the holdings of longtime NGA benefactor Ruth Kainen, whose late husband, the painter Jacob Kainen, also was print curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The show virtually ignores the last 20 years of Kirchner's life and includes only a few of his post-WWI works.
Off the Mall at the Phillips Collection, however, is a little gem that many D.C. tourists will miss -- an early-career survey of Margaret Bourke-White's photography of early-American industry, assembled by curator Stephen Bennett Phillips. While the show is straightforward enough, it's impossible to ignore the sexual overtones of many of the images. I laughed out loud at the audacity of Goodyear Tire & Rubber: Underside of Dirigible (1931), an image of the undercarriage of a blimp that closely resembles a vagina. As I was laughing another gallery-goer asked me what I found so funny in the photo. It was all I could do to stammer a response about the curator's selection and stumble along. Another picture, Terminal Tower, Cleveland: View from Grillwork (1928), recalls Matisse's painted arabesques. Bourke-White's arabesque is pierced by a new, phallic, Cleveland skyscraper.
Though much of the Phillips Collection is closed for renovation, the museum has kept several galleries of works from its permanent collection open while the Bourke-White exhibition is on view.