Freight Gallery, a new exhibition space in northeast DC’s Langdon neighborhood, creates experiential moments by displaying works in a non-traditional environment. Located deep within an old brick warehouse, it takes the eyes a moment to adjust to the dark hallway leading to the space. When the lights flip on, the “gallery” reveals itself to be a literal freight elevator. While the incongruity of viewing art in an industrial locale could easily tumble into the realm of kitsch, the gallery’s debut exhibition, Floating Light featuring a site-specific work by sculptor Diane Szczepaniak, creates a compelling dialogue between the work and the environment it occupies.
Recontectualizing vacant or utilitarian spaces for artistic purposes is certainly not a new phenomenon—artists have long had a knack for creating exhibition opportunities outside the realm of the commercialized gallery environment (Capitol Hill’s short-lived Porch Projects is another local example that springs to mind). Yet here Szczepaniak treats the elevator not as a novelty but an integral part of the work itself, creating a multi-sensory experience whose meditative quality is emotionally underscored by the artist’s recent and untimely death in October of this year.
The sculptural component of the work is spare, reflecting a Minimalistic aesthetic that highlights intersecting horizontal and vertical planes. Slender steel rods and a thin sheet of metal create a plinth. On the plinth two additional rods form a ‘T’ shape which in turn support two hanging Lexan polycarbonate plastic rectangles. The plastic shapes are delicately attached to the horizontal bar, allowing them to gently move in response to the airflow through the space. An additional audio component including ethereal sounds such as crickets and finger cymbals gently echoes through the space.
The combination of visual material, aural activity and volumetric space creates a sense of reverence. There is just enough room for the viewer to circle the plinth and view the sculpture from all angles. Walking around the object, one views the slowly moving plastic rectangles, but looking through them exposes the raw, metallic surfaces of the elevator walls. The gallery space is thus an essential part of the installation. The impact of viewing the sculpture is enhanced by its setting and would not have the same sense of power if shown in a more traditional, gallery space.
This unusual installation demonstrates how the concepts of volumetric space and placement added to Szczepaniak’s formal consideration of visual movement that was at the heart of her practice. In allowing motion within the work, the artist not only disrupts the hard edges and lines that define the piece, but also fosters serendipitous contemplation of how solid mass (including our own bodies) moves through an empty void.
The design of the installation lends itself well to a formal critique of its visual components, yet I find it difficult not to also consider the work in response to the artist’s recent demise. Clearly, the Freight Gallery installation represents her final, fully-realized solo exhibition. An exhibition of her work, completed by her colleagues, will open at Visarts in Rockville, MD in January of 2020 (see link below for more information). A reliance on air currents to “finish” the work highlights the unseen forces at play in our daily lives. Coupled with the meandering soundtrack, the installation reads as a call to contemplation—of what exactly, is largely left to the viewer’s imagination. Perhaps serving as a visual clue is the thin sliver of space left between rectangular planes. Viewing the two pieces of Lexan dance within a fraction of an inch to one another, never to touch, might be seen as symbolic of our relationships as we move through the world. In this sense, Szczepaniak gently encourages us to slow down and savor the delicacy of life.
More information about the exhibition is available on Freight Gallery’s website. The gallery is located within the Off the Beaten Track Warehouse arts complex at 2414 Douglas Street NE, Washington DC.
Diane Szczepaniak’s Visarts exhibition will open January 22, 2020. More information is available Visarts website.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com