2015 is turning out to be a banner year for the Washington Project for the Arts, a fact to which the 750-plus crowd attending the November 14 opening of Washington Produced Artists would surely attest. After a 20 year hiatus the WPA has a purpose-built space to finally call their own. Located on the ground floor of the newly-completed Atlantic Plumbing residences, the seventh location for the organization accomodates both flexible staff offices and dedicated exhibition space under one roof. A wall of windows, complete with roll-up garage door, fronts a streetscape that still bears the graffiti of decades past even as new, arts-related enterprises begin to pepper the block.
This turning point is a moment of slight ambiguity yet ripe with potential: how does an organization highlight its past 40 years of leadership within the area’s artistic community while simultaneously establishing its new location as welcoming cultivator for the next vanguard in art? This is the delicious conundrum the WPA leadership presented noted curator Laura Roulet when it invited her to create the exhibition that now christens WPA’s new space. Balancing these two imperatives is not necessarily an easy task. “The past is important, but [we] don’t want to fetishize it,” notes WPA’s new Executive Director Peter Nesbett as we tour the new space. On the job for just a few weeks, Nesbett seems to indicate that this rich history will inform (but not necessarily dictate) the way in which he will guide the organization into its next decade.
While Nesbett’s tenure begins after this exhibition’s design, he is quick to embrace the spirit it embodies. Roulet’s artistic choices–the display of contemporary work by artists whose ties to the WPA can reach back decades–seek to position the WPA as both a longtime champion and forward-thinking leader within the DC-area arts community. The artists included are well-known and varied lot to include: Joyce J. Scott, Jim Sanborn and Dan Steinhilber present a variety of mixed-media works alongside photography by William Christenberry and a video installation by Michelle Lisa Herman. Also included (though not on display during my visit) are performance-based works by the Workingman Collective and a collaboration by Maida Withers and Brian Kane. Visually there is little to cohesively link these artists; they appear as five vignettes rather than a single exhibition – a snippet of each artist’s interests. Thematically however they demonstrate that DC artists are actively and simultaneously investigating societal and artistic trends on local, national and international levels.
William Christenberry’s and Michelle Lisa Herman’s works mine the local social and artistic terrain that we navigate on a daily basis. While Christenberry’s locally-sourced inspiration belies his reputation on the international stage, it should come as no surprise—DC has been his home since 1968. For Washington Produced Artists, Christenberry presents five images from a body of work that on the surface document the seemingly mundane storefronts of one DC neighborhood in the early 1970s. The images’ titles, such as Laundry Sign, 18th St, NW, Washington DC (1972) provide important contextual clues. Taken in the wake of the 1968 riots, Christenberry seeks to document a largely African-American neighborhood in transition, perhaps unsure of what is on the horizon. Seen forty years later, there is a sense of history eroding before our eyes. Given that WPA’s newly-erected building is just blocks from the location of these images, his work raises important questions concerning how we can best integrate this rich history with the breakneck pace of change taking place in Shaw. That point of integration is data-mined in Herman’s video works, as she investigates how we connect with each other through the use of technology. Mirror Mirror, projected on the gallery’s façade, uses facial recognition software to capture the fleeting yawns and smiles of the passersby. When detected, the passersby is confronted by similar responses from members of the WPA’s community. As with Christenberry, the results are subtle, but seem to indicate that the WPA, like these artists, seeks to interact with the surrounding community on an emotional, intrapersonal level.
Dan Steinhilber’s room-sized work also references an historical moment, albeit on a larger scale and with artistic rather than purely social connotations. While reflections of the Washington Color School are an integral facet of Steinhilber’s oeuvre, his seemly Generation-X sensibilities reverberate throughout the work, signaling a fresh, contemporary approach to color. In lieu of canvas for 2015’s Untitled (Lake Conway) the artist uses manufactured lumber aggressively bolted to the wall rather than hung upon it. Similarly, oils and acrylics are chucked for more industrially-sourced liquids, including Starbucks coffee, washer fluid and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Where Washington Color School artists such as Gene Davis and Morris Louis investigated the subtle, serene aspects of blending color, Steinhilber shrouds his work in a hearty cloak of Pacific-Northwest grunge. It’s a bombastic punch to the exhibition (and a scene stealer), readily demonstrating how DC artists are responding to national art movements.
Exploring intersections between American and transnational issues is Baltimore-based artist Joyce J. Scott, whose affiliation with the WPA dates all the way back to a solo exhibition in 1981. Veil (2011) and White Noise Hanging (2010) use beads as their chief materials and a seemingly African figuration as their inspiration. White Noise Hanging in particular, with its central figure unhinged from terra firma and at the mercy of forces beyond his or her control, evokes a sense of what it must be like to adrift in a rapidly changing society. War Woman II, with its distinctly tribal totem surrounded by weaponry, speaks to this same sense of being awash with a much more transnational perspective.
Jim Sanborn continues this transnational dialogue in his new series Without Provenance: The Making of Contemporary Antiquity. Sanborn’s research into the art market for Southeast Asian antiquities demonstrates that consumer demand and lax legal enforcement simultaneously drives the theft and forgery of historic artifacts; galleries and auction houses are sometimes complicit. For Washington Produced Artists, Sanborn presents two ersatz antiquities along with auction catalogue facsimiles touting their alleged provenances. The intent is clear: to what degree will we allow desire for rare artifacts blind us to the subsequent cultural looting that desire creates? It is an interesting philosophical question to debate, and the fact that it is being queried here in DC demonstrates the international outlook that exists within our region’s art community.
Two time-based performances round out the exhibition. Artist and choreographer Maida Withers (who participated in the WPA’s inaugural exhibition in 1975), Brian Kane and the Maida Withers Dance Construction Company performed an interactive, movement-based work entitled Anonyty at the exhibition’s opening on November 14th. On December 13th, the Workingman Collective will stage a performance-based (some might say endurance-based, as it includes a 10.3 mile hike) piece that revisits the past homes of the WPA. The ephemeral nature of performance art creates challenges for audiences and reviewers alike: miss it in the moment and it is gone. Documentation (in the form of video, photography, etc.) can serve to illuminate both the impetus behind the work and the fleeting performance itself. Placing documentation of these performances in the gallery alongside the static works of the other artists would have allowed visitors to better visualize shared themes between the works.
Nesbett’s plans for future exhibitions will hopefully consider this observation. During our conversation, he notes that the WPA has a long history of both performance-based work as well as work situated within the surrounding community. Going forward, he will seek to build on that foundation with programming that, while focused on the visual arts, may encompass elements from a range of artistic practices. Washington Produced Artists demonstrates that the visual arts in DC is neither insular nor backward-looking. Let us hope that WPA’s more secure footing and new director build upon that trend!
The Workingman Collective will unveil their interactive performance piece ‘Twine’ on Sunday, December 13, 2015. Details may be found here. For more information about upcoming gallery events, please visit their website here.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Brian Kane’s collaboration with Maida Withers.