Every year since 1986, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has been collecting work by local artists for its Art Bank program. This year’s exhibition of the finalists, titled DC Art Now 2023, showcases the work of seventy-two artists at its 200 I (Eye) Street gallery. A sweeping show, DC Art Now 2023 represents a cross-section of DC’s contemporary arts scene. Visitors who are familiar with recent shows from across the area will be able to recognize artists’ names. With paintings and sculptures—abstract, figurative, and everywhere in between—there is something for everyone.
Entering the gallery, one is almost overwhelmed by pattern and texture. While some artists work with paint and others employ collage, from a distance the lines between the two blur as paint begins to look like collage and collage begins to look like paint. In The Warmth of Other Suns by Charles Jean Pierre, arrows and pound signs cover the canvas with a density that seems to echo the cacophony of opinions in the digital space. The title, a reference to the 2010 book about the Great Migration, raises the notion that highly personal histories often weave together to tell a larger story. Julia Bloom also references the personal through pattern, typing her diary pages on magenta Lokta paper until the text is so dense it is nearly unreadable.
Several works are notable for their creative use of canvas as a medium as well as a surface through staining, sewing, and collaging. In works by Lina Alattar, Lory Ivey Alexander, Barbara Januszkiewicz, and Leslie Holt, an unprimed canvas is stained in transparent washes of color. The paint layers in Januszkiewicz’s Easy Living flow together toward a central point in the bottom of the canvas, creating a relatively simple composition while in Alexander’s She Is Closed Like a Fist But Will Open Like a Flower, they vary between thin and thick and flow in different directions, thus creating a composition dense at the bottom and light at the top. The result feels like a landscape not quite of this world. It is well-balanced between intention and chance, a difficult middle ground to strike with a soak-stain technique.
In Dementia Stain, Leslie Holt also uses a soak-stain technique in addition to sewing and embroidering the canvas. Her materials become the subject as paint, canvas, and string tumble together. weaving in and out of a pocket that is both embroidered with an image of a brain and contains excess string. Holt’s use of the pocket allows the painting to fold in on itself, both hiding and divulging the black embroidery thread that unravels from the brain, appropriately recalling the sober title, Dementia Stain. In these works, one can feel the legacy of the Washington Color School artists of the 1960s and 1970s – the art movement that put Washington DC on the map in the art world at large.
Beyond staining, other artists similarly play with materials to produce works that look like paintings by employing color, composition, and pattern through their use of collaged materials. In two tondos, Rashad Ali Muhammad collages faux leaves and petals that from a distance look like daubs of paint, while Eric Celarier’s materials of choice are circuit boards, leather, and wood. Both artists created work that was true to its medium; soft flowing petals gently swirl around flowing circular compositions while metallic computer innards rigidly form a hard and shiny square relief. While both are accomplished and visually pleasing, one wonders if the form / function relationship could be pushed to achieve something more unexpected.
Valerie Theberge’s two mosaics move with sinuous lines that betray the cold hardness of their cut glass materials. The glass and marble of these works capture the energy of DC’s downtown, combining the historical authority of marble monuments with the shiny angled glass office buildings of K Street. Aptly titled Landscape 1 and Landscape 2, these pieces remind us that a cohesive looking whole might be more delicate than it appears; perhaps a metaphor for our political landscape as much as our natural one.
Similarly, Gary Kret’s sculptures infuse play into the usually cold materials of marble and bronze that adorn government buildings and monuments. In two works a smooth bronze cylinder, looking like a cartoon character sheepishly hides behind a neoclassical arcaded marble block, more revealed or concealed depending on the viewer’s position. Titled Keep Quiet and Keep Back, the two sculptures convey an air of secrecy, which could be read as either playful or sinister. Michelle Lisa Herman’s sculpture Untitled (Invisible/Visible) #3 similarly combines the human and playful with the cold and hard; high-heeled feminine legs like columns support a large block, which is alternately comical and cynical. There is no end to political interpretations that could be read into these sculptures, which makes them rather appropriate for a survey show titled DC Art Now.
Several other artists capture the feeling of the city beyond the marble encrusted national mall. Regina Miele’s Hazy, Hot, and Hooptie, NEDC evokes the visceral feeling of soupy summer evenings that any DC-native knows well. Her saturated hues soak the canvas in a feeling of nostalgia, turning what seems like a benign street corner into a scene that feels personal. Similarly, Sheila Blake’s Angel Visits Purple House is painted with the same care to capture an indelible feeling of place, with a for-sale sign and chopped down tree stump suggests a feeling of unease, that perhaps the home we are looking at is past its prime. Landscapes by Roderick Turner, Cathy Abramson, Bradley Stevens, and Elaine Wilson capture other scenes of the DC cityscape in its ever-changing form: buildings and landscapes inevitably swept away by time but frozen in the moment through meticulously detailed paintings.
Other artists center personal experience through portraiture. In Joseph Hamilton’s self-portrait, Weight of Existence, the artist confronts the viewer as they enter the exhibition. Staring unapologetically at the viewer, his head flanked by paintings in various stages of completion, the portrait feels raw and personal. It feels as though we caught the artist in a moment of pause as he contemplates his next step, alluded to by the empty canvas behind him. The artist considers us as we consider him, potentially prompting the same sort of existential crisis that is referenced in the title. If Hamilton’s painting can be taken as a representative of the whole, today’s DC artists are engaged in thoughtful practices, questioning their own purpose as they manipulate pattern, textile, collage, marble, and paint. Swing by DC Art Now 2023 to see them in full force.
DC Art Now is on view at the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Gallery located at 200 I (Eye) Street, SE, until December 15th. The gallery is open Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5:30 pm.