East City Art Visits Porch Projects Artspace in Northeast Washington

By Eric Hope on February 23, 2012

The arrival of Porch Project’s latest exhibition announcement in our East City Art inbox reminded us that we’ve been meaning to pay this year-old artspace a visit.  Mariah Anne Johnson, Porch Project’s owner/director, was kind enough to invite me over for a tour and friendly chat about this non-traditional space and how it came to be.

Porch Project is not your “typical” gallery, nor does it feature art easily adapted to one’s home.  Located on quaint block not far from the hubbub of H street, NE, the only indication that I am near cutting-edge art is a small sign leaning halfway up a flight of red stairs.  I am standing in front of a typical Hill row home, and the entry to the gallery is a simple front door.  I climb the stairs, my interest piqued, ring the doorbell and am ushered into a sunny living room filled with a eclectic mix of art.  This room is not the draw however, and we have one more staircase to climb before we reach Johnson’s two-room sun porch.

My first idea of a non-traditional gallery is a rough, raw warehouse space taken over by artists; this surely doesn’t fit the bill.  The size of the space, roughly that of a smallish bedroom, at first feels demure.  Honestly, it feels odd traipsing through someone’s private, domestic space to see art.  Yet at the same time, I find myself really intrigued.  As Johnson shows me images of past exhibitions, I quickly begin to appreciate the role her Project is takes in shaping contemporary artistic discourse here in Washington, DC.

detail of porch

Over tea she tells me how this all came about.  Johnson first encountered a similarly-styled arts venue in Chicago in 2004, and the idea of private, informal exhibition space stuck in her head as she moved around the country.  When she and her husband arrived in Washington from Los Angeles in 2009 she thought opening a “domestic exhibition space” (her preferred label) would be a good way to meet other artists and foster experimental ideas.  She notes that exhibitions in DC can be fairly formalized, with few places to be “crazy and experimental”.  Artists and curators often have to write

"Beginning, Middle, End" by Megan Mueller; installation view

elaborate proposals that are then vetted in a process that can take months to see any fruition.  This process can be a hindrance to artists simply looking to experiment and try out new ideas.  According to Johnson, artists, “can experiment all day long [in the studio], but if you don’t have a chance to show it you don’t know if you should continue in that vein.”

Porch Projects fills that niche for spontaneous experimentation.  Johnson curates some shows herself, but also invites artists to submit there own ideas for shows, and imposes only two criteria on participating artists.  Works  need to actively respond to, or activate, the space they inhabit and must be collaborative in nature.  Johnson shies way from solo shows, preferring instead to foster discourse between artists as a way to strengthen the local arts community.  Past exhibitions run the gamut from graffiti pieces to constructed assemblage to time-based performance art.  Several works have even spilled out into her backyard, using the porch as a viewing platform. Its interesting to note that, for the most part the works displayed are not realistically sellable and there really isn’t a commercial aspect to her space.  It really is more about giving the artists free reign to try out new ideas. “Even [artists] who usually make work for sale need to act crazy once in a while”.

"Dinner Conversation"; conclusion of performance piece by Shannon Young and Jaimes Mayhew

Porch Project’s first exhibition of 2012, Megatron’s Dead is a collaborative exhibition featuring local artists Samuel Scharf, Bonner Sale and Zac Willis.  Johnson tells me the show is part installation-part performance, but is otherwise spare in her description of the exhibition, preferring to allow attendees to draw their own conclusions after interacting with the artists.  Indeed that is one of the fascinating aspects of operating out of a private home — it places the viewer in a slightly surreal context for viewing art and lends itself to a more visceral response to the art.

Johnson was kind enough to put me in contact with artist and contributor Samuel Scharf, and I quizzed him on how this exhibition came to fruition.  He and his fellow artists gravitated towards this space specifically because it fosters experimental creativity, noting that “Porch Projects is something of a rarity in DC because it is so open and boundless without having to produce a two year in advance exhibition schedule.”  Megatron’s Dead is a foray for the artists into conceptual ideas around death in popular culture, where death could represent “true death”, irrelevancy in an ever-changing pop culture, or the reincarnation and reanimation of past pop icons by new generations.  Megatron, a popular Transformers action figure, embodies elements of all three of these ideas and became somewhat of a totem for the trio.  Listening to Scharf describe this work (which includes sculpture, video, painting and performance) I, like Johnson am intrigued to see how this will all come together!

Megatron’s Dead, a multimedia experience honoring cultural icon Megatron, opens Saturday, February 25th with a reception from 4-7pm.   For more information, please visit the Porch Projects website .