Arts Desk

Reviewed: “How Is the World?” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

Exhibits of “new acquisitions” are hard to pull off—easier, perhaps, than exhibits of donations from particular collectors, but not by much. There’s little unity of theme, or of artistic vision; what the works share is simply that they were recently obtained. This is the challenge with the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “How Is the World: Recent Acquisitions of Contemporary Photography.”

The exhibit includes some undeniable art-world A-listers: Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, Rineke Djikstra, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Paul Graham, and Sam Taylor-Wood—and a couple of them are represented by top-tier works (Burtynsky’s diptych of an enormous used tire pile, below, and Sugimoto’s portrait of Oscar Wilde’s wax-museum likeness). But having a limited number of works per artist inevitably sells short each one’s oeuvre.

Indeed, some of the exhibit's less well-known artists produce the most arresting works. Kate O’Donovan Cook cleverly melds the approaches of Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, posing herself in elaborate scenarios, in this case a model being sketched by a group of ghostly male artists. And Siobhan Hapaska, primarily a sculptor, contributes an image both mystifying and riveting: a woman, styled in a vaguely World War II fashion, coolly walking toward the camera as a black-smoke fire rages behind her amid scarred fuselages.

Then there’s Tom Hunter’s staged tableau (top) of two women sitting around a bonfire in one of London’s grittiest districts—an homage to John Everett Millais’ much more pastoral 1858 painting “The Vale of Rest.” This backstory gives the work intellectual heft, and its overdramatization can be excused as an effort to style-check its progenitor, the pre-Raphaelites.

Through May 26 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW.


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