On Sept. 11, 2003, the New York Times published a proposal for Lower Manhattan’s 9/11 memorial that had arrived by mail in the form of a collage. Designed by artist Ellsworth Kelly, it was an image of striking elegance: an aerial photograph of Ground Zero that Kelly had clipped from the Times, to which he had added a minimalist green polygon shape representing a simple mound of grass. Kelly’s memorial design is not the one that opened to visitors on Sept. 12, 2011, but it depicted a view shared by some: that no structure should have replaced the footprints of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Ellsworth Kelly is a name that comes up when D.C. conceptual artist Patrick McDonough discusses his latest project, the second in a series that he calls “white turf painting actions.” Over the course of 30 hours last weekend, McDonough painted an empty grass lot in Anacostia white by using turf paint, the kind used to stripe a football field. Part of the Lumen8 arts festival, McDonough’s piece is a performance that, much like Kelly’s proposal, uses the language of minimalism to illuminate the changing urban environment.
There’s nothing special about the plot of land McDonough picked. The parcel is promising real estate, located along Shannon Place SE between V and W streets just one block from Anacostia’s famous Big Chair, with views of the Washington Monument and Nationals Park. But as it is now—a vacant lot that stands in the shadow of a building that houses the D.C. Taxicab Commission and the D.C. Lottery—it’s a plot that only a developer could love.
That cold featurelessness is perhaps the quality that led McDonough to approach Curtis Brothers, the owners of the vacant and other nearby properties, for permission to paint over the field with 250 gallons of Pioneer Athletics Ultra Friendly Brite Stripe field-marking paint. Brite Stripe is an EPA-recognized field paint that emits no volatile organic compounds, so McDonough’s not hurting anything—except maybe himself, seeing as how he spent the better part of a late-July weekend outside, using a household roller brush to paint over more than 10,000 square feet of weeds.
It’s an endurance performance for both McDonough and the viewer: There’s no reward in watching McDonough doing manual labor in the way there is in, say, sitting face to face with the immortal Marina Abramović. McDonough, a young and consistent artist, has made every effort to strip his work of ornamentation. Neither this vacant lot nor the part of Rosslyn’s Gateway Park that he painted white during the recent SuperNOVA performance art festival provides a very splashy visual. It’s a lot of effort for subtle ends.
McDonough appears to delight in deliberately tweaking the most overlooked parts of the built environment. His practice, which also includes creating awnings, usually requires the participation of building owners or property developers. McDonough paints the lot that nobody notices; he builds an awning that people will look right past once it’s complete—and only after knocking down the doors of uninterested owners for permission . (They often reject his intensive and pointless-seeming gestures.) McDonough is disrupting something, though it’s not always clear what that something is.
That’s the trick: McDonough’s work, in fact, registers a vote of confidence that minimalist and conceptual artworks, even the most cerebral intervention, can make a difference—without any dip in formal integrity. McDonough’s “White Turf Painting Action,” which coincides with the broader Lumen8 festival taking place in Anacostia through Aug. 10, illustrates the faith that developers are placing in art as a driver for new commerce to the neighborhood. McDonough is getting right down to the point by painting the property itself.
One of my favorite parts of McDonough’s “White Turf Painting Action” project is a rendering he made to illustrate the concept before he ever got started. It looks like an architectural rendering, with a figure standing on a field holding what might be a rake—but over the tool’s head and much of the field, McDonough’s whited everything out. It’s a collage that conveys a big concept through a single stroke.
Next, if he can get approval from the National Park Service, McDonough would like to paint over every triangle-shaped park in the District—which could, in a single stroke, do more than a conference’s worth of urbanists to demonstrate the wasted cumulative opportunity that these “parks” represent. It’s a proposal that Ellsworth Kelly might endorse.
“Ladyparts” At 87Florida to July 26
I don’t love disrobing in front of other people even under the best of circumstances, so it was with some trepidation that I participated in Rachel Hrbek’s performance at “Ladyparts,” a group show on view at the 87Florida Artist Collective. For the opening-night performance, Hrbek asked viewers to become the viewed. One at a time, viewers could enter the bedroom where Hrbek was sitting, in her underwear, but only by stripping down to their skivvies first.
As vulnerable as I felt, exposed during a two-minute conversation with a stranger, this intimacy power-play left me feeling chafed afterward. Perhaps work in a show called “Ladyparts” was bound to weaponize sex. But Hrbek’s performance, and other works aiming for the confrontational, arrived at the transactional.
Curated by visiting San Francisco artist Alexandra “Rex” Delafkaran with Aether Art Projects’ Eames Armstrong, “Ladyparts” squeezes the work of 11 women and three men into the Bloomingdale apartment gallery. Do-it-yourself house shows aren’t museum exhibitions, granted, but this was just too tight a fit. The space worked to the advantage of Ziad Nagy, whose performance at the opening involved dancing around erratically, but it was nearly impossible to avoid the nuisance.
In the same living-room space, Sterling Poole placed three photographic depictions of a vulva high up on a wall, with a step-ladder providing the only way to view the works closely—at the cost of opening the viewer to scrutiny for wanting to look. Linda Hesh’s portraits conflate sex and sin by joining attractive, less-than-dressed models with apples inscribed with the word “Evil.” There isn’t much room for subtlety. Carly J. Bale’s performance had her in a bathtub, stapling her hair to a board before finally cutting much of it off.
Works that work include a suite of abstract paintings by Kyrae Cowan, representing washboards and installed with clothespins along a line, and a sculptural installation by Elle Brand featuring ceramic egg shells—both potent metaphors for women’s labor. The most topical piece was the one that suffered the most from its display: Rachelle Beaudoin’s “Upskirt Defense System,” a reflective panty-liner attached to a pair of women’s underwear. That’s a funny retort to the so-called predditors who post upskirt pics of unknowing women on Reddit and elsewhere, but the piece—the single artifact plus two photos of a woman wearing them—was so haphazardly displayed that it seemed like an afterthought. “Ladyparts” is a hazy collection of ideas about the body, all of which deserve a more careful exhibit.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this review misidentified the name of Rachelle Beaudoin's work. The piece is called "Upskirt Defense System," not "Upskirt Defense Systems."