Dec. 27, 2002-
Quality Is Job 1
By Glenn Dixon
A good number of the conversations I've had this year have begun in one of two ways: (a) "Have you seen the new show at Fusebox?" or (b) "What the hell's up with the Corcoran?"
I swear to God, half the time I didn't even bring up the latter subject, but perhaps sensing my receptivity, folks I knew or half-knew or even had just met would lay into D.C.'s biggest repository of untapped art-venue potential with a bat. They heaped scorn on a lame exhibition schedule, placed blame for the underfunding of a vital Visiting Artists Program, and proposed that the Gehry addition is a misguided and possibly doomed adventure. To be fair, I heard faculty complaining less often about the college than in the past, but students bitched about the departure of beloved profs and the ossification of taste among those who remained.
It's easy for safely tenured beard-strokers to get set in their ways and cease to keep up with the art mags, forgetting that everything's equally new to the young turks, a crew of whom made Fusebox, now just over a year old, the spot to watch. Derided in some quarters as an Ikea Art emporium (mainly by the old-timers and hacks who see nothing amiss over in Dupont), the 14th Street NW gallery has actually had a much more varied program than it received credit for. This year saw figurative sculpture and drawings by Kristofer Lee, performance by Jessica Buege, sound art by Richard Chartier, video by Susan Smith-Pinelo, documentary photography by Vesna Pavlovi´c, digitally manipulated images by Margi Geerlinks, politically minded information art by Siemon Allen,
In a town where "emerging artist" is often code for some wet-behind-the-ears nobody whose output is indistinguishable from student work and who is unlikely to emerge into anything other than a life of 'zines and bartending, Fusebox put together a stable of local, national, and international names about whom we can gladly expect to hear more in the future. In addition to having the most civilized hours in town, friendly to people who work 9 to 5 as well as to those who sleep in 'til 3, Fusebox successfully forged a defining aesthetic both brainy and cool, immediately joining the slender ranks of local spaces for which "quality" isn't a dirty word.
Back at 500 17th St. NW, though, the preference was for quantity—of paying customers. Come fall, I, for one, was wondering whether the façade ought not be engraved, "Corcoran Gallery of Rhinestone-Studded Purses and Jackie Kennedy Crap." Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Los Angeles Timescritic Christopher Knight made a noteworthy assault on crowd-grabbing blockbusters, observing that they tend to alienate the core audience of serious art-heads, without which a museum doesn't mean a whole lot. I've got only the sole data point of my own experience, but many was the time this year that the Corcoran's show roster couldn't get me in the door. For ages, it hasn't been possible to scan the Contemporary Art in U.S. Museums page opposite the Absolut ad in the back of Artforum without giving a shudder at the Corcoran's lineup.
When someone rings me up asking me to change the way I write, I expect it to be my editor—it's part of the process. But several months ago, I got a call from the Corcoran public-affairs office suggesting that I might have more success swaying the museum–s board if I adopted more measured, less vulgar language. My response was that the board was hardly the audience I kept in mind when writing for the Washington City Paper and that because the current programming was doubtless the product of many civil discussions, that tack didn't seem to be working all that well.
It later occurred to me that this invitation to suck up must have seemed, on the other end of the line, like an appropriate way to conduct business. The reason, of course, is that pandering has become a lingua franca over at the Corcoran, a tongue slipped into with the casual assumption that anybody within earshot will be sure to understand. So when the aerial photography of Emmet Gowin rightfully lured me back to the museum, I discovered, in addition, shows in which the Corcoran was pandering to official Washington ("Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber," part of a series of shows sponsored by Georgetown dowager Evelyn Stefansson Nef), to parents organizing family outings with young children ("The Shape of Color: Joan Miró's Painted Sculpture"), and, finally, to itself ("Picturing the Corcoran's Sculpture: Photographs by David Finn").
Unless the Corcoran's charter has changed since the last time I checked, the museum is still dedicated to "encouraging the American genius." The first part of that object is easy: You can't spit without hitting "American." The second part's more difficult. It's supposed to be. It should be quite obvious that ferreting out genius requires having standards and setting them on the high side, where Larry Rivers can't get to them.
Over the past couple of months, the question of standards, and thus of quality, has erupted anew around Art-O-Matic, an unjuried show that every few years fills vast stretches of disused District real estate with a great agglomeration of rubbish. With each new iteration, the exhibition's organizers get all belligerent about how good it is for you to submit yourself to this unfortunate spectacle, neatly factionalizing the city's gallerygoers. Among the show's most outspoken opponents this time around was Tyler Green, a Knight fan and Fusebox partisan who writes a blog called Modern Art Notes, and whose Dec. 1 letter to the Washington Post generated a considerable response both online and off-.
After dragging myself through Art-O-Matic the first year, I vowed I'd never repeat the experience. But I went again, largely because I felt a little guilty about warning Kojo Nnamdi Show listeners off it sight unseen (although I was upfront about not having visited the exhibition at that point). I needn't have been so scrupulous. If anything, Art-O-Matic, as a visual-art event, had gotten even worse, more sprawling and more amateurish.
Playing on public trepidation toward much contemporary art, events such as Art-O-Matic and the Party Animals extravaganza aimed low, perhaps working from the assumption that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. But, as an acquaintance of mine told his mother when confronted with that old maxim, you can get still more of them with a pile of shit. Indeed, the success of either project should be assessed according to this qualification.
Washington taxpayers should be pleased to learn that they're going to end up footing the bill for up to $25,000 worth of Art-O-Matic detritus: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—also sponsor of the Party Animals—ponied up that sum to add several of the show's pieces to its Art Bank. It's worth noting that the commission's executive director is Tony Gittens, who is also director of Filmfest DC, which cites the DCCAH as a "major sponsor." Now, our annual local cinema binge is no Toronto or Sundance, but it's not a horrible embarrassment, either. If it were run like Art-O-Matic, Filmfest DC would consist almost exclusively of tedious and inept home videos.
Arts bureaucrats need to think of quality not as a philosophical or political consideration, but as a practical one. It is about establishing a threshold of interest. Ultimately, it concerns itself with what viewers do with their time. My question for those who think we can dispense with the notion that some things are more deserving of consideration than others is "How do you decide what you want to see?" On any odd week in the City Paper, there may be listings for more than 50 museums and more than 100 galleries, embassies, and alternative spaces. Even full-time critics can't visit them all. And what about the average person, who may have only an afternoon per week or per month free for such pursuits? I have yet to meet the artist who doesn't think his work is worth the time it takes to look at it, and yet in most cases, it isn't. If, when planning your outings, you try to remember which venues have betrayed you, which writers have misled you, and which artists have made you wish you were home watching TV, like it or not, you're dealing with the issue of quality.
If being jealous of my time helps me decide what to bother with in the first place, it's envy that lets me know what I like. Call it base, unreasonable, and unfair, but envy doesn't lie. Looking at art is an exercise in trying on for size the minds, lives, and talents of other people, and the best shows fill my gut with a familiar gnawing. Here are the 10 of 2002 that most made me wish I were someone else:
1. "H.C. Westermann," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Furious, tender, funny, and uncompromising, Westermann was as complete an artist as they come. He doted on his materials before staking them against the idiocy and horror of the America he loved, and they were rarely less than equal to the challenge.
2. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes in "I...Dreaming: The Visionary Cinema of Stan Brakhage," at the National Gallery of Art. Standing out from a sprawling, uneven, and necessary retrospective, this half-hour of autopsy footage was an unflinching and almost unbearably sad elegy to lifelessness. There's no crossing over here—only a dead stop.
3. "Tony Feher," at Numark Gallery Working with the humblest of materials, Feher located unimagined sculptural barriers, then pushed past them.
4. "Steven Cushner: Recent Paintings," at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland College Park Earthy experience met liquid memory in luminous glyphic abstractions.
5. "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Proving that competition, not cooperation, is the juice of a thriving art scene, the Poverists melded mind games with sensory pleasure to set the stage for the art world's next 30 years.
6. "Chromophilia," at Fusebox The rare text-inspired group show that not only cohered, but also threatened to outshine the individual artists gathered under its theme.
7. "Directions—Marina Abramovi´c," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Surrendering to her conflated memories of father and country, the endurance-art pioneer carried a banner for everything (and everyone) that cannot be repaired.
8. "Thomas Downing: Origin of the Dot," at Conner Contemporary Art Twin shows at Catholic University and Conner attempted to re-establish the reputations of two second-string Washington Color Schoolers. Howard Mehring didn't hold up; Downing did.
9. "Leo Villareal: Digital Light Sculpture," at Conner Contemporary Art Doing right by the dazzle of mod-style light art with technology that could have only been dreamed of in 1967.
10. "Colby Caldwell: Songs," at Hemphill Fine Arts Here's wishing him more obstacles like the computer glitch that led to his lyrical, abstract grids.
Plus one ringer from New York:
"Robin Rose: Protocol—Recent Paintings," at Howard Scott Gallery Past works by this local encaustic master have been bigger and splashier, but with this show he brought his pictorial language to a new level of refinement. CP