Spit and Image: The Death and Life of Cities, According to Cynthia Connolly
In some ways, Cynthia Connolly has been preparing for her show “Beyond the Parking Lot” since the early 1970s. That’s when Connolly, the visual-arts curator at Arlington’s Artisphere, first heard Joni Mitchell’s pop treatise on urban blight and environmental despair, “Big Yellow Taxi.” You know: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
“In L.A., it seemed real,” says Connolly, who grew up in Hollywood, and who carried the song’s sense of dread through her adolescence. In her sixth-grade yearbook, she lists her career ambition as a life of self-sufficiency on a farm somewhere.
Today, Connolly isn’t any less concerned about the built environment, though she’s not exactly eking out a subsistence livelihood off the land. She lives in a foursquare home in Arlington she describes as “dorky.” Though she used to pledge she would never have too many possessions (so she could pick up and take off anytime she wanted), that was before she was able to build a darkroom and house her roomsized letterpress equipment. “It’s one-third the letter press, one-third photographs, and one-third me,” Connolly says.
The notion that Connolly, 47, could ever leave the D.C. area seems ludicrous: She’s one of the artists who built the District. She chronicled D.C.’s DIY punk milieu almost from its inception, writing about or photographing the city and its scene beginning in the early 1980s. She worked for Dischord Records years before anyone there was drawing a regular paycheck. Minor Threat’s foundational 1983 album Out of Step? She drew the LP sleeve’s iconic black sheep, inspiring innumerable hardcore tattoos.
Connolly has worked in the city’s art scene for longer than most of its current galleries have been in operation. In that time, however, her photography has been featured in just three big D.C. solo shows (at Transformer, Arlington Arts Center, and Civilian Art Projects), all since 2005. While she says she never aspired to wizened-elder status in the local art scene, she has nevertheless found a corner of it: first, as the director and curator of Ballston’s now-defunct Ellipse Arts Center, and since 2010 as the visual-arts curator Rosslyn’s Artisphere.
“Beyond the Parking Lot,” a Connolly-curated group show, is the culmination of a number of ideas she’s pursued her whole life. It’s a look at sprawl and urbanism and environmental catastrophe, themes that pushed her toward punk more than three decades ago. It’s also a statement from a curator who’s had an important but neglected impact on the way people in D.C. think about its art and artists. Moreover, it’s a show about the forces that threaten to displace a city’s culture and community—a subject very dear to Connolly’s heart.
Connolly and her family visited D.C. in 1981, not long after she discovered punk rock through a two-page spread in the calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. She and her sister met Ian MacKaye in April of that year, a few months after he began playing in Minor Threat. “They were punks and we were punks,” MacKaye recalls. “If you were a punk at all, you were going to be friends.” After a brief return to Los Angeles, Connolly moved to Washington permanently with her mom, who had taken a job in the Reagan administration.
That four-month-or-so stint back in Los Angeles cemented Connolly’s friendship with MacKaye. They became pen pals—MacKaye says he still has all her letters—and went on to date for two decades.
A high-school junior when she moved to D.C., Connolly finished her GED and started taking classes at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, across the street from her mom’s job in the Old Executive Office Building. At the Corcoran, Connolly didn’t study photography, her medium today, or even start taking photographs for another few years. She graduated in 1985 with a degree in graphic design that she says she’s worked hard to unlearn.
She began working at Dischord more or less at its inception. “We had a policy, no ads for magazines, but we would spend the equivalent in dozens of dozens of fanzines,” says MacKaye, who founded Dischord with his Minor Threat bandmate Jeff Nelson. That was a platform that Connolly expanded at the label. (Connolly also worked in distribution for the L.A. punk zine Flipside and wrote its D.C. punk scene report.) MacKaye says that Connolly was keenly interested in more forward-thinking publications and targeted the zine publishers whom she felt had an artistic vision. Whether those ads compelled people to support
Dischord or not was ultimately irrelevant, because Dischord was supporting the community that MacKaye and Connolly admired.
“Cynthia took a risk with something that was unproven, and it was a huge milestone for me at the time—this idea that a record label would buy space in a new project to help it along,” says J.C. Gabel, who founded the zine Stop Smiling in 1995. He featured her prominently in 2008 alongside Anwan Glover, George Pelecanos, and other D.C. veterans in a special D.C.-focused issue of Stop Smiling, which by that time had evolved into a full-fledged glossy. “Cynthia has always been a huge source of inspiration for me—and my generation,” he says. “She always jokes with me: ‘We were doing DIY before there was such a thing formally—you just did it yourself because there was no other way it’d get done.’”
From 1986 to 1991, Connolly booked shows at d.c. space, the storied punk venue at 7th and E streets NW. She brought in everyone from performance artist Karen Finley to Steve Albini’s noise-rock group Big Black. And she did it on an ambitious schedule, scheduling shows six nights a week. “So much of d.c. space and what it was is so influential to what D.C. is,” she says. For example, Jim Andrade named Adams Morgan institution Asylum after the “Asylum Night” he hosted at d.c. space. (Perhaps tellingly, Asylum recently became a more upscale barbeque joint, Smoke & Barrel.)
Connolly took some time off to travel to China and Russia, returning in 1992 to a Dischord Records whose business had exploded in the wake of punk’s mainstream breakthrough. The decade was an active one for Connolly’s photography, too; she took a show of her photographs on tour, so to speak, in 1997, finding gigs through the community she helped build through mail-order and zine culture. Locally, people weren’t paying as much attention. “D.C. didn’t get what I was doing. I didn’t care about D.C.,” she says. “The D.C. art scene—I don’t know what it is.”
In 2002, Connolly’s career took a sharp departure. She and MacKaye had broken up, and she decided to take a break from Dischord. She discovered the Rural Studio, a design-build architecture operation at Auburn University. Connolly wasn’t an architect, nor even a student at Auburn University. But she enrolled through Rural’s outreach program, and spent the year designing and constructing an organic vegetable stand in Alabama, where she also built new bodies of photographs.
There’s a streak of determined dilettantism running through Connolly’s career, says Ryan Holladay, Artisphere’s new-media manager and a member of the experimental pop group Bluebrain. “In the same way a band being able to play their instruments well is sort of secondary to their ability to convey an idea or an emotion, I think Cynthia approaches art with those same values,” he says. “Formal training or even a high level of craftsmanship matters less to her than determining whether or not there’s a good idea there.”
The highlight of “Beyond the Parking Lot” might be a massive installation by Philadelphia artist Alex Lukas. It consists of a panoramic drawing mounted on wooden supports, which rise to an eye-level ring that viewers may enter. A cinematic watercolor depicts a wrecked suburban landscape under ominous skies. Tires float in the water that seems to have submerged the scene; damaged billboards give no hint of the source of the devastation, but the innocuous graffiti on ruined walls suggests that it wasn’t war but neglect that did the community in.
Nearby, Baltimore artist Amanda Burnham portrays a much livelier urban space. She made her installation with paper cutouts, coupling a few different influences: The images she uses are mostly pieces of text drawn from street signs, billboards, and marquees, but the overall work looks like a manic cartoon, more Philip Guston than text art.
Frank Day’s photographs, on the other hand, are rich enough to eat, a series of nine black-and-white photographs depicting a panoramic view of the interchange at I-395 and I-95 in Baltimore. In Day’s depiction, the presence of people is neither evident nor especially wanted. His work goes well with another artist in the show, Trevor Young, whose dark portraits of illuminated structures turn vernacular architecture into temples.
“Beyond the Parking Lot” moves well beyond the parking lot—into the city and into the idea of how we want to live. It’s not a lecture, though wall text accompanying the works features scary numbers that tell the terrifying yet perhaps banal truth that we’re changing the world for the worse. The artworks tell the more nuanced story. That’s what Connolly does.
Connolly got her first big start as a curator in 1988, when she, Leslie Clague, and Sharon Cheslow published Banned in D.C., a photobook and essential text on D.C.’s DIY scene. The book documents the subculture’s evolution between 1979 and 1985. It’s a period that D.C. punks, historians, and curators have revisited again and again—in part, because Connolly and company had the original vision to recognize the change as it was happening in real time.
You could say that Connolly has forgotten more about D.C. than most residents remember—but she forgets nothing. Like Rodman’s pharmacy at Wisconsin Avenue and Harrison Street NW in Friendship Heights, which was the place to go for German chocolates and Agfa Brovira Grade 3 paper, which she favored. “It’s totally D.C.,” she says. So were the various tenants of the Kresge and Lansburgh Buildings in Penn Quarter over 30 years’ time. So is the reason they’re called the Kresge and Lansburgh Buildings, which they’re not really called these days.
“It’s going to get all lost,” she says, referring to knowledge in the near term, with a nod to disasters looming on the horizon.
MacKaye says that there is a theme of community threaded through all of Connolly’s work. She wasn’t a photographer, but compiling an important book of punk photos over the course of two years led her to work with negatives and take her own pictures. She wasn’t a curator, but taking her photos on the road and dealing with different venues and artists led her to think like one. She wasn’t an architect, but she wanted to help, so she took it up.
“She’s just a doer,” MacKaye says. “She is a seriously industrious person who gets things done.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Due to a reporting error, the article originally referred to "Agfa Brovira Grade 3 film." The article should have described it as paper, not film.