Arts Desk

“Addiction,” a Mount Vernon Square Gallery’s Sobering, Out-There Look at Drug Culture

drugs

Forget that it opened on 4/20. There's little that isn't sobering in "Stars and Pipes: Addiction," {Cre8} Space Studio Gallery's new warts-and-all photography show centered on the ravaging effects of hard drug abuse and the very real lives of drug abusers. In one series, a naked woman with golden earrings and a face written with years of hard living meticulously prepares a needle for injection. Another tableau shows a faceless man in a Red Sox T-shirt freebasing while a vein threatens to burst from his upper arm. A row of black-and-white portraits captures the faces of several men: Some look beaten, others strangely stoic.

Part of the show's inspiration is surprising. Without drugs, says Cara Brown, one of {Cre8}'s director-founders, “we would have 1 percent of the music we have." Take Sade, the English art-soul outfit whose songs, Brown points out, often happen to be about black-tar heroin. (Although one has to wonder what drugs, as a subject and a creative tool, have done for Sade's efficiency: The group has released only six studio albums since forming in the mid-'80s.)

"You have to understand it all," says Brown, explaining that in the wide view, the stigmatization of drug use can be as dangerous as drug addiction. In other words: There are good things and undoubtedly bad things about drugs, just as there are productive and unproductive ways to think about them. And so the exhibit—which first showed in New York and features works by the photographer Thi Chien—casts harsh light on the physical toll of drug abuse while playing with the romantic notions of drug culture. Standing in front of a photograph of two topless, ostensibly well-heeled young women snorting coke with a $100 bill, Francis Agbodji, another of the gallery's owners, says: "It takes me to the movie Blow. It’s the '70s, '80s. It was just the thing to do."

"It's very out-there, very raw, very controversial," Agbodji says of the exhibit. It's the type of description the gallery doesn't intend to shy away from—but also not a very safe sales bet for a for-profit space that's only been open five months and whose owners are less than two years out of college (Brown, Agbodji, and their partners graduated from Howard in 2008). Or maybe the show's gamble will pay off, after all. According to co-founder Stevenson Dunn Jr., the gallery is already negotiating the sales of several works. {Cre8}'s mission, Agbodji says, is to interact with and inspire its community—hence some shows that speak to social concerns, as well as programs like community forums, film screenings, and panel discussions. Agbodji says he genuinely believe his generation will use “visuals to change the world.” The gallery's next event, tomorrow night, is a panel discussion featuring a former federal drug enforcement agent, a director of a rehab center, a former addict, and others.

It hasn't escaped the curators' notice that the show could hit some raw nerves in a city that was ravaged by the crack epidemic a generation ago. Just before they opened the doors on April 20, an unassuming woman walked up to the gallery's 9th Street storefront, intrigued by the art. The first image she saw was a large photograph of a blackened hand holding a crack rock. She told Dunn that the hand was so black because the stains from holding a crack pipe every day are difficult, nearly impossible, to wash out. She paused and took another look at the photograph, Dunn says.

"I used to have hands like that," she said. And then she walked out.

{Creat8} SpaceStudioGallery is located at 1314 9th St. NW. "Drugs: America's Dilemma" takes place Thursday 6-9 p.m., and the exhibit runs through May 19. Image courtesy of the gallery.

{Cre8}

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