The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ (DCCAH) financial support of local artists is well documented, but did you know the Commission also runs a gallery space to promote DC talent? Located inside a District government office building at 200 I (Eye) Street SE, the I Street Galleries inject visual art into the main lobby – activating a public space not often considered in artistic terms. The 2015 Artist Fellowship Program (AFP) Exhibition is Currently on view through March 27, 2015. On the eve of the opening, DCCAH curator Zoma Wallace took a break from installing the works to give me a tour of the exhibition, highlighting many of the works along the way.
For the 2015 fiscal year, which run through September 30, the DCCAH has awarded $645,000 in grants to a total of 91 artists across a variety of disciplines; Wallace selected 25 visual artists to take part in the show. The exhibition features a wide range of media (from photography to sculpture to mixed media) and subjects in sizes ranging from demure to dominating. As a whole the show lacks an overarching, cohesive theme; my first quick walk through the AFP exhibition feels remarkably similar to experiencing the WPA-SELECT exhibition concurrently on view across the Potomac in Rosslyn. In both cases, the curators’ main intent is to display the breadth of artistry within our local community. The viewer is dazzled, but perhaps flummoxed as well in trying to decipher the connections between the works.
Slow down though and you’ll soon welcome the subtle interplay that Wallace has introduced to the mix. Here she uses the gallery’s unique architecture to create vignettes featuring works that enliven curiosity as they play off one another. Wallace readily acknowledges her intent was first and foremost to create a wide-ranging survey, but notes that as she was researching the grantees, several thematic elements rose to the fore. Environmental concerns were a common linkage between several artists, including Rik Freeman, Mike Osborne and Jessica Beels whose disparate works all manifest a sense of fragility. Vulnerability of a more heartfelt sort is also on display in works that address family dynamics or the relationship between inner spirituality and public worship as seen in the works of Gediyon Kifle, Carmen Torruella Quander and Marta Pèrez-Garcìa. Abstraction across a variety of media takes up considerable floor space, including the wax and shellac-based pieces of Sondra N. Arkin, photography by Adam Davies and the cut paper works of Nate Lewis. (Editor’s Note: Adam Davies was the winner of East City Art’s 2013 EMULSION juried exhibition.)
Not all works can be neatly pigeonholed into one of these concepts, but when purposefully matched with other seemingly disparate works, arresting interplays rise to the surface. As we’re walking, Wallace stops in front of Timothy Johnson’s diptych Persephone and Hades, (itself an eyeful) hanging next to photographer Mike Osborne’s Shell, Houston, Texas. On the surface, the subject matter of the works seem dissimilar with only the frame of the former matching the predominate colors of the latter. Wallace then points out the small Shell logo featured in the right side of the diptych and instantly new connections start to be made. Osborne’s larger Lyondell Basell, Houston, Texas is paired with The Convict by Anna U. Davis to similar effect as the lines and frenetic energy depicted by dancing bodies mimics the structures and activities of the oil installation.
Wallace also plays with the physicality of the works themselves when she places Ian Jehle’s The Director (Rebecca) alongside Kat’s Boots by Christopher Dolan. While both speak to pastoral memories, here the curator contrasts the austere larger work (notable as well for its use of negative space) with a diminutive piece that is full-throttled in its narrative. It is entertaining to watch the two works attempt to dominate one another. In a similar vein, the combination of Nina Durtlowe by Nekisha Durrett and Rania Hassan’s Revelations plays not only on color and shape but subtle feminine references that span cultures. Not all matches are equally enlightening, but even when a pairing is seemingly obtuse, such as the combination of the colorful Kathryn McDonnell and stark Nate Lewis, small similarities can eventually rise to the surface (in the case a sense ephemerality).
The physical layout of the gallery is a key component to the exhibition. Placed all together in one large room chaos would reign. Instead the gallery is cordoned into tiered sections, easily allowing Wallace to group these themes together by tier. Rather than take in all works at once, one must meander from level to level in a style of engagement that slows the viewer down and perhaps subtly encourages a more contemplative state of mind. Wallace notes that she wants this journey, “to spark relationships and conversations between the artists and show how [a] vast spectrum of artists could still be cohesive.” While relationships and conversations certainly arise, overall cohesion still feels limited.
And that’s okay. In showcasing a wide range of works, Wallace actually touches upon a myriad of questions or experiences that could serve as the impetus for a more focused, in-depth exhibitions in the future. The exhibition certainly proves that District artists are keenly interested in the world around them and ready to boldly explore. Perhaps that simple notion in itself is the cohesive thread that binds them all together.
The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ 2015 Artist Fellowship Program Exhibition runs through March 27, 2015. The Galleries are located at 200 I (Eye) St, SE and are open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:00am though 6:00pm.