Best Punk-Rock Art Savior

Victoria Reis
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

An art critic like The New York Times’ Holland Cotter would normally be hard-pressed to name a Smithsonian show among his top art moments of the year—much less a D.C. gallery response to a decision by the Castle. But in his 2010 year-in-review essay, Cotter named first among his 2010 highs the decision by Logan Circle art space Transformer to screen David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” after the Smithsonian removed it from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” show. “It organized a protest at the National Portrait Gallery and screened the video for 48 hours straight in its storefront window, reminding us what ‘alternative space’ once meant,” Cotter wrote.

But who cares about that—the Times isn’t punk. Transformer’s Victoria Reis, on the other hand, said that she and Transformer co-founder (and current Civilian Fine Arts gallerist) Jayme McClellan founded Transformer to rise against. “Let’s just do this ourselves,” their thinking went, according to Reis. “Jayme and I felt at the time that there wasn’t any system for supporting emerging artists or supporting experimental artistic explorations.”

Reis has been on the punk tip for years: showing unsalable art by untested artists, which is normal art-punk, but also collaborating with the National Museum of the American Indian to show new work by indigenous Hawaiian artists, which is truly D.C. art-punk. And in December 2010, by springing to action to work with her board and the Wojnarowicz estate, she earned the national sort of DIY cred more often associated with her husband, Brian Baker, founding member of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and Samhain, and longtime guitarist for Bad Religion. Bands he hasn’t played for: R.E.M. (he turned down an offer in 1994); Guns N’ Roses (he turned down an offer from his friend, bassist Tommy Stintson, to audition in 2000).

Reis, who met Baker through a friend in 1999, describes him as “a wonderful man.” You’ll have to take her word for it, since Baker doesn’t speak to Washington City Paper (which is kind of punk). They bought a house together in fall 2002 and married on April 2, 2004. She says they talk every day when he’s away on tour. (“But we don’t Skype—we’re both stubbornly luddite.”) On the day before their wedding anniversary, Baker is leaving for tour in support of Bad Religion’s new album, as well as the band’s own 30th anniversary.

On the road, Baker will no doubt lead entire stadiums in sonic refrains with blitzkrieg licks about censorship and the government. Meanwhile, Reis is preparing for an all-day symposium on censorship and the government set for March 26 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. As is Transformer’s wont—and the key to the non-profit’s success—the space has paired with a prominent partner (the National Coalition Against Censorship) for a significant presentation on the issue. Just as Transformer’s response to the Smithsonian was the first and the strongest, its symposium addressing the fallout of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” show is the best you’ll find. (If, um, possibly the only one.)

“It was a natural response to show the Wojnarowicz video,” Reis says. “Not to mention that David Wojnarowicz was influential on a generation of artists that we now show at Transformer.”

Collaborations like the one she’s planning with the NCAC—although they’re usually collaborations geared around showing art—have kept Reis too busy to join Baker on tour, though she got away for an East Coast jaunt last October. She loves Bad Religion, but she doesn’t totally miss the road. “The tour bus is not always girl-friendly,” Reis says. “It’s not always very adult-friendly, frankly.”

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