Reflections on D.C. Art in 2010
I'm not a fan of top tens. And because I just began covering art for the Washington City Paper in the middle of the year–with a fall hiatus–I don't feel qualified to give a list of "best shows." But, there are several things I'm ruminating about going into 2011.
The Washington Project of the Arts is 35 going on five
The recent WPA 35th anniversary retrospective at American University's Katzen Arts Center, curated by J.W. Mahoney, was a fine collection of work by area artists, but the end product of the exhibition looked more like another WPA auction than it did a retrospective. The early experimental spirit of WPA–electronic music, film screenings, dance troupes, stage performance, fashion shows, poetry readings– was difficult to recreate, and it was certainly made all the more problematic by lacking documentation, which WPA does not seem to possess. It remains unclear if any artist who once exhibited at the early WPA has any such ephemera either.
Consequently, that interdisciplinary spirit was lost on the individual who happened to pass through the Katzen exhibition of mostly two-dimensional work. In the last decade, WPA put together fewer events than it did between 1975 and 1978. The comparison is somewhat unfair, since in the 1970s the organization had far more space, far more staff, and a big name–Robert Rauschenberg–on the board. What can be gathered from the "retrospective" is that WPA is an organization still gaining its legs after its divorce from the Corcoran Gallery three years ago: a reinvented child with all the stature and potential of Mozart (who wrote his first work at the age of five). As WPA re-matures, hopefully it can shake off the institutional scabs of high society and once again become something more funky–SynchroSwim and the WPArade (the later of which I participated in) have been fun steps in that direction.
Transformer is still more than meets the eye
Some of the funk WPA might need can be found at Transformer. Though its output is equally small–and its space much smaller–its exhibits in 2010 were wonderfully imaginative, with fresh exhibitions like note the Washington Ballet collaboration "Snow Globe," Nancy Bannon's "Cornfield," and–perhaps my favorite show of the year–Rebecca Key's "Archetype." But it was the Transformer's decision to show David Wojnarowicz's "Fire In My Belly" after the video was removed from the "Hide/Seek" exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that put the gallery on the map. The decision showed grace and courage, and demonstrated that even a tiny non-profit arts space can have a tremendous impact on a national discussion. If played correctly, Transformer can parlay this into an opportunity to grow bigger and more influential in the decade to come.
For the National Portrait Gallery it might not get better… at least for a while
Behind every dark cloud we need to look for a silver lining, and with NPG's decision to remove "Fire In My Belly" there are a couple. First, the decision introduced Wojnarowicz's work to a younger generation, and has the potential to make him a household name if people can get past the pronunciation and spelling of his last name. (It's more intuitive than "Krzyzewski," at least.) Second, the resulting publicity from the removal of the work gave more attention to the exhibition–and to the issues therein–as a whole. Unfortunately, much of the attention got re-directed toward demonizing the NPG from both political ends, lighting fires under the phantom "culture wars," and revisiting the fallow battle grounds of censorship, First Amendment rights, and what defines art.
NPG's attempted pragmatic response to the protests of a small, highly vocal, very well organized, and largely ignorant mass–who believe the Smithsonian Institution is confined to one building, and who protested the very concept of the exhibit by parading specific bits of content as an abuse of our tax dollars–was a potentially brilliant marketing prop to drive people to the exhibit. The result: NPG's prop backfired, and the Warhol Foundation has pledged to cease funding for all future NPG exhibitions unless "Fire in My Belly" is reinstated, which is ironic– since Warhol's work was all about props.
The Pop-Up Prop
Fine art appearing in out-of-the-ordinary places is nothing new to D.C.; it's a practice that dates back to at least since 1958, when Alice Denney at the Jefferson Place Gallery convinced the Modern Design Shop on Connecticut Avenue to display a few Ken Nolands paintings behind the store's not-quite-as-Modern furniture. But 2010 was the year the practice got a brand name in D.C.: the pop-up gallery. Unfortunately, with what seemed to be a new pop-up project weekly, the concept got stale. More often it often seemed like a prop: something to dangle about in a press-release; pop-up for pop-up's sake. Should it continue? Absolutely! More art shows equals more art shows. But to maximize the practice's impact (and not use it as just another opportunity to sell a condo or a store-front), it must executed with quality, not quantity.
The Fear of a Flatline Project
Several of the pop-up galleries in the city have, in some way, been connected to the Pink Line Project. Some have been frivolous and some have been fantastic–not unlike the exhibitions of any given gallery in any given year. However, reading Kriston Capps' WCP cover story about Pink Line founder Philippa Hughes left me with a lump in my throat: what if Pink Line flatlined? For a couple of years Pink Line has operated on a shoestring budget (not unlike the early WPA) and created copious opportunities for many D.C. artists. The result has been a little more shine in this government town... and on some occasions a little more Shiner Bock. Philippa and Pink Line are not the Alpha and Omega of the D.C. art scene, but sometimes their ubiquity makes them seem like it. If the shoestring broke, D.C. would be left limping for a while. Fortunately, it seems like the shoestring will get knotted up a bit tighter.