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by Sidney Lawrence

The many museums of Washington, D.C., present a rich trove of exhibitions, but the quirkiest by far is the survey of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden collection selected by comic California conceptualist John Baldessari. "Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection" (July 26, 2006-Sept. 20, 2007) presents a familiar enough curatorial strategy -- bring in an artist, with an artistís unique irreverence, to take a fresh look at the stuff in storage.

But considering that the Hirshhorn trove was assembled by one of the most buoyant, manic, bargain-conscious, catholic, sometimes brave, sometimes disastrously sentimental collectors in recent history -- Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1899-1981 -- itís a project that would whet anyoneís appetite.

While not exactly reckless, Baldessariís installation has wit, daring and ahistorical chutzpah. Among 65 works (some acquired since Hirshhorn gave up the reins) spread through some 9,400 square feet are several startling juxtapositions: funny-scary upside-down figures by Miroslav Balka (a headless angel) and Antoni Tŗpies (a pair of corduroys imprisoned in wire); an ironic view of female flesh by sculptor Emily Kaufman (a swooning Ď30s tart on a couch) next to René Magritteís vivisected Venus; and a delightful potpourri of wacked-out mythological nudes by Louis Eilshemius, Downtown Gallery stalwart George O. "Pop" Hart, Arthur B. Davies and Jess.

As in Baldessariís art, in which bright dots of flat color obscure the faces in recycled 1950s and Ď60s publicity stills, elusive storylines emerge frequently in this exhibition. In one grouping of waxen sculptures, for instance, a Medardo Rosso baby watches Bruce Naumanís cast of a manís arm, which looks as if itís reaching for a tool at Joseph Beuysí chunky worktable. Or, on a wall where three paintings are hung together, a grimacing lady-muscleman by Ed Paschke is placed next to an impastoed, impossibly hermetic cosmogram by Alfred Jensen. Both are eyed by the third work, a portrait of a quizzically, bespectacled, shrink-like individual by Milton Avery. †

What does all this mean, you ask? It doesnít much matter, because the point of these and many other groupings is to tease us with possibilities. Baldessari isnít looking for historical continuity, nor is he much interested in current fashion; he just wants to tell a story. Kudos to the Hirshhorn for opening its vaults to him.

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In the old Hirshhorn days, the D.C. gallery scene was focused on the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Now, Washingtonís gallery district has moved to 14th Street (see below), with additional pockets of interest here and there. Still in the Dupont circle area is the ever-edgy Conner Contemporary on Connecticut Avenue, which kicked off the 2007 season with a show of provocative, squeamishly elegant, post-Feminist videos and stills by the Swedish artist Maria Friberg. Stubbly young men in black, lying face up, slide off painterly heaps of white satin at a slo-mo pace though they are filmed in real time. The helplessness and vulnerability of these Odalisques-with-testosterone is both beautiful and disconcerting.

Marsha Mateyka Gallery, which is located in an R Street rowhouse, featured works on paper by some of the galleryís better-known regulars for its February show. Works on view ranged from an oozy photo-grid of a mushroom by Athena Tacha and obsessively detailed abstraction-cosmologies by locals Andrea Way and Craig Dennis to visions of earthly doom by architectural fantasist Nancy Wolf and Funk master William T. Wiley. †

Provisions Library, a research center on Connecticut Avenue with exhibitions specializing in activist art, was between shows last time I was in the neighborhood, but Hillyer Art Space on the ground level of a mews-like building where the Addison-Ripley (now in Georgetown and also between shows), Foundry and Gary Edwards galleries used to be, was up and running.

Hillyer featured Bridget Sue Lambertís extremely wry "Itís Not You, Itís Me" photo series in January and February, in which rough-hewn clay women, sometimes accompanied by buff males, react to relationship angst, youthful yearnings and parental authority in off-kilter homemade dioramas.

Hillyerís second show, "Nordic Light/Northern Visions" (Feb. 9-Apr. 20, 2007) is of the official, embassy-sponsored, grandiosely titled ilk often seen in Washington, which can turn out to be better in the imagination than in reality. All the same, this small show samples the cool, crisp chill you might expect (pardon the stereotyping) from Scandinavian figure and landscape painting. If youíre an Odd Nerdrum fan, the swirling allegories by one of his students, Jan-Ove Tuv, should hold considerable appeal. †

In Georgetown, where trendy commercialism, old-world charm and dinner-party politicking usually provide the excitement, art can create a buzz, too. Mu Project has been launched in a second-floor space on Wisconsin Avenue near P. Specializing in contemporary Asian art, it presents four shows a year and also happily accepts visitors by appointment. One attraction is Xei Rongís pale digital photos of Shanghaiís crumbling back streets, which are very elegiac and were first exhibited here last fall. A show of Emi Amjakujiís juicy, anatomically-frank photo-allegories opens Mar. 10, 2007. They seem bound to cause a stir.

Not that Washington is all prudishness and Brooks Brothers. Musically speaking, a generation ago, it was drop-dead hip, as is attested by "Punk Love," a recent exhibition at the Govinda Gallery in Georgetown. Susie J. Horganís black-and-white photographs of D.C.ís hyperactive club scene in the late 1970s and early Ď80s depict sweaty, out-of-control, testosterone-spitting performances by the likes of Henry Rollins, Ian MacKay, Minor Threat, the Cramps and Teen Idles. The audience -- mostly males of college-age or younger -- is just as intense and messy. The hysteria is audible.

Horgan, who worked with Rollins at the Georgetown Haagen-Dazs, has a knack for pushing the shutter at just the right moment. The painfully intense on-stage huddle of Rollins and a handful of kids is all grimaces, screams, neck tendons and flinging sweat. The four-part image of a young skateboarder in an open raincoat, on the other hand, depicts the very essence of inner peace. Horganís book is well worth the $25 cover price. †

Over on the 14th Street corridor near P -- a neighborhood that is equal parts grubby and yuppie but changing fast -- D.C.ís bona-fide gallery district now thrives. Transformer, a tiny bus-stop storefront on P Street, is just about to close a two-person photo show (Feb. 3-Mar. 10, 2007) of documentary subjects by Lely Constantinople and Antonia Tricarico. Tricaricoís images of Baltimoreís Lungfish band are particularly riveting. Two side-by-side sheets with four images each present what appear to be portraits of eight people. But with time it becomes apparent that the same four people appear on each sheet. Waiting for the resemblances to kick in reminds me of a high school reunion when the wrinkly stranger you are introduced to morphs into your teenage best friend. Yikes!

Around the corner on 14th, Irvine Contemporary offered two fascinating shows in January and February: Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selenickís "The Apollo Prophesies," black-and-white-photos of studio-made panoramas (and a $37 book to go with them) of faux space explorers, moonscapes, rockets and other contraptions comprising a zany, back-to-the-future gentlemenís fantasy; and Melissa Ichiujiís "Nasty Nice," an exhibition of baby-dolls, S&M women and other sex-enacting figurines made of stuffed nylon, thread, feathers, fabric leather and nail polish invoking, all at once, Egon Schieleís emaciated women, Bruce Connerís doll assemblages and a child gone mad in the playroom.†

Randall Scottís new gallery, also on 14th, has a show about motion, largely consisting of videos, that he organized (Feb. 17-Mar. 17, 2007). A single-monitor video work by Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain presents a lighting-fast progression of stills of pages from Virginia Wolff, where the camera holds fast on a single word while surrounding sentences and thoughts skitter madly by. Eight cycles spell out "What if suddenly nothing else moves?."

Also at Randall Scott Gallery, Silas Barrettís small-screen triptych of water -- like a Vija Celmins drawing come to life -- uses a Rorschach-esque center point to hold the eye, a touch that seems very drugged-out Ď60s. Dane Picardís projections update Salvador DalŪís "paranoiac critical" method (with a touch of Pilobolus) in which an image of one reality coexists simultaneously with another: Spliced, edited and collaged a la Cubism, the artistís palms transform themselves into a flapping eagle and racing cheetah that are like watching a live magic show.

The 1515 14th Street Building has several attractions. In the one-room Curatorís Office, in a show that closed in February, local artist and critic J.W. (Jim) Mahoney exhibited photo-based works that picture Buena-Vista-Social-Clubbish ladies on the beach, period cars and poetry snippets mourning his mother in a sad nostalgic tone (the series is called "Stella Maris," as in Star of the Sea).

Upstairs at Hemphill Fine Arts, an exhibition of works by Colby Caldwell featured color portraits of country folk in the verdant Maryland landscape, but it was his five-monitor video installation, Rounds, that really packed the punch. Scratchy, faded-out home-movies pulsate and replay, in sequence, scenes of hunters displaying a ramís horn and pelt, pheasants in flight, a hunt dog aggressively advancing toward the camera and a passive, pensive Walker Evans-type lady on a porch.

Adamson Editions on the floor below let viewers in on the world of Jessie Mann, the busty, grown-up daughter (and former subject) of famed photographer Sally Mann, via a group of photographs made by Jessieís collaborator Len Prince. The works were exhibited at Danziger Projects in New York and are also slated to go on view in Chicago. Jesseís long experience in front of the camera seems to have turned her into something of a chameleon, as she presents herself as an Ingres Odalisque, Ophelia under water, a hot-to-trot cow girl, Monica Vitti doing Antonioni and much more. The works are reminiscent of Cindy Sherman poseurs and Helmut Newton glamour sluts, to be sure, but the dreamily sensual, naughty yet innocent sensibility is -- you guessed it -- pure Sally Mann.†

Down the hall, G Fine Art is featuring a dynamite show of new glass sculpture by Graham Caldwell (no relation to Colby). Jutting from the walls are self-contained colonies of mostly opaque, clean-edged, abstract-organic shapes variously resembling talons, antlers, branches, teeth, light bulbs, chewing gum, Christmas ornaments, shaving mirrors, 18th-century looking glasses, an atom diagram, ballerinaís grab-bars and grandmaís trinkets. The imagination runs wild.

Bouncing to other parts of town, the new Project 4 has opened on 9th Street near U in what is called D.C.ís "Little Ethiopia." The gallery recently opened a show of Baltimore artist Rich MacDonaldís spare, subtly altered color photos of interiors comment on class, taste and personal quirks (Feb. 2-Mar. 10, 2007).

Over at the Bronfman Gallery of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, midway on 16th and Q, is a show organized by former Hirshhorn curator Phyllis Rosenzweig, titled "5 X 5: Five Artists Choose Five Artists to Watch," which recycles an old formula with a winning local cross-section that includes Jae Ko, Renee Stout, Mary Early and Pia Calderon.

Finally, way up Massachusetts Avenue on Ward Circle, the Katzen Arts Centerís American University Museum has a 40-year retrospective honoring Stanley Lewis (Feb. 6-Apr. 8, 2007), an American landscapist whose work can be both realist and expressionist. If you like this kind of thing (and forget for a moment that the AU Museum is my PR client), this showís a killer.

Does all this add up to a dynamic art scene? Sure. Even politics-as-usual canít drain the life from a city that bustles, and with its metro-area population of almost 5 million, D.C. certainly does that. One final bit of news: on April 27-30, 2007, Washington welcomes 80 exhibitors to its first art fair ever, DCart, at the Convention Center. Wish us luck.

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist, art critic and curator of "Roger Brown: Southern Exposure," which opens this fall at the Smith Museum in Auburn, Ala.