The 1990s have not been kind to alternative spaces. Here in D.C., the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) struggled for several years before it was taken over by the Corcoran Gallery in 1996, a fate somewhat contrary to the organization's original mandate. As it happens, the WPA's demise was more the result of a real-estate recession than any Republican-inspired retrenchment at the National Endowment for the Arts.
The fiscal health of the local art scene has always been linked to real estate, the city's main nongovernmental income stream. Real estate is again flourishing in Washington, encouraged by a new mayor, subway expansion and a long-delayed downtown renewal. Such developments give rise to vacant transitional spaces, perfect for low-rent shows of new art.
Thus, the spring art scene in D.C. was enlivened by "Art-O-Matic," a sprawling exhibition of installations and other art works by 350-plus artists (all hailing from metropolitan Washington and Baltimore) in three massive buildings totaling 90,000 square feet. The site -- the former Manhattan Laundry, 1346-1348 Florida Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. -- came courtesy of developer Douglas Jemal, who provided liability insurance. Expenses for the project were paid by the artists themselves, with the exception of a grant from Maytag.
Organized by a local art group called A. Salon, the show wasn't selected by curators. Instead, a baker's dozen-sized steering committee developed a consensus. Priority was given to thematic and installation proposals; spaces for individual artists were then assigned by lottery. Democracies produce amalgams, and this show was one -- equal parts art fair, gallery surrogate and experiment station.
The stylistic variety was exceptionally broad, and ran the gamut from cutting-edge contemporary to biker art. What's more, the assembled artists reflected the region's demographics more honestly than most WPA projects ever did -- meaning there was a diverse racial and cultural mix. Over 4,000 people attended Art-O-Matic's two-night opening, as much for the live music as for the art. Once the project settled into its month-long schedule (it was on view May 21-June19), it was possible to see how the most successful art works skillfully took the space to heart.
Printmaker Naúl Ojeda's installation, called The Last Supper, playfully fused issues of religion and nourishment into an interactive performance that featured, à la Rirkrit Tiravanija, the distribution of handmade pasta. The leftover linguini was arranged like laundry draped over a clothesline, a residual artwork that everyone liked.
Veronica Szalous and Zyamina Gorelik collaborated on Body Bag Project, First Installation, which incorporated phototransparencies within the windows of an elevated passageway between two buildings. Sensual and vaguely sexual, the imagery related to figures in a landscape. Virginia Daley, Judy Jashinsky, Kevin MacDonald and Cynthia Young are all figurative artists who made a show within a show called Water². Their approach is more orthodox but their installation in "Art-O-Matic" was no less site-conscious.
Artist Renée Stout and poet-activist Gary Lilley made an ad hoc work called Raising the Contradiction, using a grid of cut paper silhouettes to address the Littleton shootings from a perspective that is distinctly African American and urban. Michael Platt's Shotgun House, a loving homage to his father's lottery addiction, is a peaked outhouse-sized structure covered with lottery tickets. Richard Dana's drawing installation, Two Sites, uses multiple components -- 40 framed drawings -- that interlock to create a dynamic pattern on the wall.
Other works posited an art of alienation. Christopher Speron's faux-primitive All the President's Are Men was a wall-size installation of some 25 luridly colored screaming portraits of our historical leaders. Perhaps the best example of this recurring leitmotif was Walter Ratzat's "Cleave" series, in which the artist's weird wearable sculptures, presented in neat suitcases, suggest the garb of a technologically adept mutant.
This mutually advantageous exchange between art and real estate may be only temporary, but for Washington, D.C., it is what passes for contemporary art culture. The show suggests the growth potential of a younger, more activist generation of artists now coming into its own. This small step -- assembling a constituency of artists from a fragmented community that has historically not played well with others -- may well be the lasting impact of "Art-O-Matic."
CHRISTOPHER FRENCH is Artnet Magazine's correspondent in Washington, D.C.