"Census 03: New Art from DC," Aug. 15-Oct. 6, 2003, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue and 17th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.
At a time when it is hip to bemoan the state of the Whitney Museum of American Art and complain about how dreadful the museum's Biennial always is, the influence of the Whitney's signature show has never been more widespread.
In the last year or so, all over America, art spaces have launched their own mini-biennials, survey shows of the contemporary art being created in their communities. Free of curatorial grandstanding, these shows are built around a simple premise: art is being made in this place and at this time, so here it is. These roundups not only show off emerging, locally based artists to museum visitors who don't go to galleries, they serve as a kind of college football to the NFL draft that is the Whitney Biennial.
"Bay Area Now" at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco earlier this year;
"22 to Watch: New Art in Austin" at the Austin Museum of Art last summer; and
"Come Forward: Emerging Art in Texas" at the Dallas Museum of Art this past spring.
The latest Biennial feeder is "Census 03: New Art from DC," a show of seven Washington-area artists (Iona Rozeal Brown, Graham Caldwell, Tim Doud, Maggie Michael, Randall Packer, Dan Steinhilber and Team Response) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Like most survey shows, "Census 03" has its hits and misses and a notable omission or two (photographer Jason Falchook and techno-animator Brandon Morse would have fit right in), but overall curator Paul Brewer puts together a tight show.
Why are these shows a good idea? Even the most ardent contemporary art lover can't keep up with all of the gallery shows in cities like San Francisco or Dallas or Houston. As a result, the pattern in contemporary art has been to wait for artists from the hinterlands to somehow make it to New York and then for critical and collector mass to form around them. Some artists never make the migration despite showing accomplished work in their home region -- Anne Appleby, who lives in Montana and who has shown widely in the West, comes to mind.
Fortunately, these mini-biennials challenge the New York-centrism of the contemporary art world by not waiting for the Big Galleries, the Big Collectors and the Big Curators to find stars. "Fie on the New York-centrism of contemporary art," these shows say, "contemporary art is being made right here in West-of-Hudson, USA."
Case in point: I don't often travel to Texas, let alone once per gallery-show cycle. The "Come Forward" show that was at the Dallas Museum of Art allowed me to see a curatorially screened chunk of contemporary art from 11 Texas artists in just one visit. I remember the delicate, tactile Augusto DiStefano paintings that I saw in Dallas in April. Five months later, they're still the most exciting paintings I've "discovered" all year. Even better for the artists, museums have been creating detailed catalogues of these shows, records that can be seen and considered by curators, gallerists and collectors all over the world.
"Census 03" provides this same opportunity to discover to visitors to Washington and locals who don't troll the gallery scene. While it would be easy for a show such as this to have a condescending tone, to high-handedly serve contemporary art to the unwashed masses, this exhibition doesn't do that. In "Census 03" the art comes first, wall text is kept to a minimum and the viewer is allowed to look and think.
That's not to say the Corcoran gets everything right. There is no catalogue for this show, which limits its reach. The museum didn't photograph "Census 03" either, which means a missed opportunity to both promote the exhibition and preserve a record of it (most of the jpgs on the museum website depict representative works by the artists, not works in the show). And remarkably, the Corcoran website for the exhibition misspelled one artist's name for the first couple of weeks the show was up. This is all too bad -- the artists in "Census 03" deserve better.
I most enjoyed the work of married duo Maggie Michael and Dan Steinhilber, Washington's first couple of contemporary art-making. Michael is a painter and her poured latex canvases evoke organic form, movement, and reproduction. Her colors are sharp and her pours more carefully planned than the act of pouring latex onto canvas would indicate. Best of all, each painting is a lot of fun to look at. One, titled Grabber, has a whimsical little pour of paint that extends from the canvas in a little arc, thus making it possible to grab the painting.
With a solo "Directions" show opening later this month at the Hirshhorn Museum, Steinhilber is Washington's art star of the moment. His contribution to "Census 03" is a giant sculpture made of paper cups held in cardboard carriers, the kind that you might use to carry four Cokes back to the office. The sculpture's shape echoes the shape of the cup-holders themselves and a viewer can look through the sculpture just the way he or she could look through a cup-holder. It's clever without being punny, attractive without being simple, and it grows on me the more I look at it.
Other work in this show aims for clever and falls short. Art collective Team Response (Jason Balicki, Justin Barrows and Matthew Sutton) has been ubiquitous in Washington this summer, with its own solo show at G Fine Art and appearances in group shows at Conner Contemporary and the D.C. Arts Center. For "Census 03," Team Response has imagined and built mini-models of the "studios" of each of the other artists in the show. Each work is, at best, an inside joke for the friends and family of the artists in the show. Team Response seems to be overflowing with clever riffs; I look forward to seeing what they can do with more ambitious ideas.
It's a safe bet that we'll get to find out. Most of the artists in "Census 03" will show again in Washington in the next few months. Just like with the Whitney Biennial, "Census 03" is a show that will provide an introduction to where these artists are going next. And while these survey shows borrow much from the biennial, there is one way in which they depart from it: these are all shows that a viewer wants to like, not shows that a viewer loves to criticize.