East City Art Reviews: Absence and Presence 2018 Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on August 6, 2018


John Ruppert, Pumpkins, 842 New Hampshire Ave, NW. Photo credit: Gregory Staley.

Better known for being the home of the State Department, the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Ward 2 of Washington DC is the site of a biennial collaboration between local artists and homeowners. Since 2007, the event has homeowners hosting outdoor sculptures that are seen by the residents and passing pedestrians. This exhibition, anticipated by residents and artists alike, also draws attention to the Foggy Bottom community for something other than State Department news.

For the 2018 Foggy Bottom Arts Walk Biennial, founders Mary Kay Shaw, Jackie Lemire and Jill Nevius invited independent curator Peter Winant, director of the School of Art at George Mason, and artist-curator Helen Frederick, professor emerita of George Mason, to co-curate the exhibition with about 12-15 sites in mind. “The number of artists is determined by the number of homeowners who choose to participate in Foggy Bottom Arts Programming,” Helen Frederick stated. “Each artist meets with a homeowner and visits the installation site after a selection committee approves the designs.”

Curator Winant and Artist-Curator Frederick explained the title of the current exhibition as follows:

Absence & Presence was inspired by the tangible dynamic of the visible and invisible, known and unknown history of Foggy Bottom that we experienced on our initial exploration of the neighborhood. The diverse cultures and the traces of change that have shaped the vicinity’s framework and population seemed a perfect environment for the artists’ own stories of the union of seen and unseen, what is and what might be. Through their exploration of form and illusion, light and dark, liminal space and natural elements, we encounter polarities and affirmation of human conditions.[1]

The artists featured in the 2018 Foggy Bottom Arts Walk are Adam Bradley; David Brooks; Brian Dailey; Linda DePalma; Nehemiah Dixon; Emily Fussner; Sean Hennessey; Melissa Hill; Jeremy Kunkel; Richard Lew; John Ruppert; Nancy Sausser; Lisa Scheer; Valerie Theberge, and Erwin Timmers.

Artist David Brooks’ video loop of a 1973 Combine Harvester and all its moving parts, can be seen in a view box on the Arts Walk. This video-loop simulated the visual language first used by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s video loop called The Way Things Go (1987) while also expanding on a larger installation by Brooks called Continuous Service Altered Daily, at the Alrich Contemporary Art Museum[2]. In the vein of artist Charles Ray’s Tractor (2005), Brooks visually dissects an industrial Harvester, which simultaneously performs nine different functions. By decontextualizing its parts, Brooks lays bare the material history and design functions of an industrial product. Using the individual parts that construct a larger whole as allegory, the artist associates machine parts with time-segmented information accumulated in an ecosystem. It would appear that David Brooks, whose work has been shown at Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, NY; The Armory in New York City, NY, as well as venues in Milan and the UK, is a rising star in the contemporary art world.

Nehemiah Dixon III, Hoodies, 810 Hampshire Ave, NW. Photographer Gregory Staley.

Hoodies by Nehemiah Dixon III presents a triple sculpture of vacant faced hoody-sweaters previously shown at the Watergate Gallery for the ACTION DC campaign, and also featured on the State of the Arts panel discussion at the Corcoran in February. His collaboration with homeowner and attorney Julie Oliver Zhang provides a public platform about injustice and discrimination. The sculpture was sold by the Watergate Gallery and will be traveling to its new home in London when the event is over at the end of October.

Nancy Sausser, A Circle On The Land, 925 26th Street, NW. Photographer Gregory Staley.

Nancy Sausser, director of McLean Project for the Arts Gallery, presents a blue circle set upon what looks like a woman’s dressing table that can be manually turned. Holding delicate terracotta forms resembling scientific specimens, nature looks back at us from the blue circle, as a vanity mirror might reflect our own faces.

Sean Hennessey, Ways We Grow, 835 25th Street, NW

Artist Erwin Timmers, co-founder of the Washington Glass Studio & School, and Sean Hennessey, director of Otis Street Arts Project located in the Gateway Arts District in Mt Rainier, MD and their respective works – Glimpse of Possibility (Erwin Timmers) and Ways We Grow (Sean Hennessey) exemplify local glass practices and casting processes in the DC region. Artist John Ruppert (Art Department Chair at the University of Maryland-College Park) contributes examples of best metal casting practices with three large Pumpkins, while Richard Lew (who taught at University of Maryland, College Park and Georgetown University) created a found material composition called Event Horizon. Lew is currently consulting with the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley with a view to establishing a new 75 acre Art Park in Winchester, VA. Lisa Scheer, who teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is showing this academic and material approach with her bronze sculpture called Lady Slipper, an abstract bronze sculpture and Linda DePalma’s Gingko at Peace, offers a striking yellow steel ginkgo motive against a blue wall.

Brian Dailey, Thinking the Unthinkable, 2527 I street, NW. Photographer Gregory Staley.

Lisa Scheer, Valerie Theberge, Brian Dailey and David Brooks provide a cache of well-traveled, international artists perspectives for this exhibition. Conversations with Brian Daily about his career in international relations revealed more about his work called Thinking the Unthinkable; part of a conceptual series addressing the difficult dialogue around nuclear war. Using the visual language of both the historical sphere represented by equestrian portraits of rulers depicted in sculptures from the past and the black granite column often used to commemorate the tombs of war casualties, Daily suggests a difficult conversation in a minimalist sculpture that addresses the “unspeakable” through a poetic visual sequence.

Jeremy Kunkel, Arm, Incase, 2538 Queen Annes Lane, NW. Photographer Gregory Staley.

Adam Bradley, Emily Fussner, Melissa Hill, and Jeremy Kunkel, studied at George Mason University. Adam Bradley sculpts twisted and disturbing creatures from mixed media steel and wood that perhaps refers to the theme of Dutch vanitas paintings. At the same time, his work seems to highlight the relation between Greek mythology and popular 21st century Superhero and Super villain narratives. Emily Fussner’s work: What Delineates continues her formal approach using the immediate local sidewalks or buildings as a collaborative element in her sculptural practice. Melissa Hill’s Closest Point of Approach uses fiber in a juxtaposed dialogue with the contours and perspective angles of a homeowner’s house. Jeremy Kunkel, a Los Angeles artist who moved to the East Coast in 2004, presents cast suitcases with arms severed at the shoulders holding the handles. Arm, in Case was initially inspired by the Syrian refugee crises, but has since evolved into new work that has a broader political context. Kunkel has a history of showing with earthwork artists such as Michael Heizer and his Camera Obscura Booths project was documented in a provocative book by author Oliver Morton.[3]

Curators Winant and Frederick have also expressed their strong encouragement for other DC Wards to take up the same practice of engaging directly with local homeowners, as the Foggy Bottom Biennial has. There is a need for local artists to show work in more visible, high pedestrian-traffic, DC spaces, especially as exhibition spaces are shrinking in the District and gallery spaces that contextualize artworks are diminishing. While Foggy Bottom offers a great venue for sculptors, it can also, through collaboration with local business owners and local architects, accommodate painters using mural processes and material allegory. Artist Tim Doud recently “translated” his painting concepts onto what he calls “building-wraps.”

Doud’s RSK CC2 and PSMP CC, installed in Arlington VA, wrap buildings[4] with transparent fabric in the same vein as the color composition and construction the artist uses on canvas. In collaboration with Rebekah Pineda, Caitlin Teal Price and Linn Meyers, Doud is also developing STABLE, an “artists hub” that would not only provide working and exchange spaces for artists but aims to present the best examples of local art to national and international curators.

With a little bit of elbow grease and the right communication, urban areas of the District can become gallery spaces. If each Ward in DC could take up the idea of collaboration with homeowners that the Foggy Bottom Biennial offers, exhibition spaces could expand astronomically while giving more incentives for corporate, private and government purchases.

The Foggy Biennial accomplishes two things—it allows artists and curators to engage with local DC homeowners in a meaningful cultural exchange, while also offering DC collectors as well as corporations a chance for viewing local contemporary sculptures up close and at leisure (the show stays on view for almost seven months) in the specific environment of Foggy Bottom, DC. The question remains: can this concept be expanded to architecture, painting and multidisciplinary practices in all of DC’s eight Wards?

[1] https://artsinfoggybottom.com/#!/current

[2] https://vimeo.com/164400684

[3] Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World, Picador, 2001

[4] https://www.timdoud.net/recent-paintings?lightbox=dataItem-ji9dabhk (last accessed 07/28/2018)

Absence and Presence 2018 Arts in Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Biennial runs through Saturday, October 27.  For more information www.artsinfoggybottom.com