If you’ve walked along H Street, NE this week you might have noticed a flurry of activity at the corner of 7th and H streets. The local arts group No Kings Collective has turned empty clothing store on the northeast corner into a pop-up gallery and performance space entitled subMerge, and its runs through Sunday November 18, 2012. I dropped by this week for a tour and chat with Collective member Brandon Hill.
Candidly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have been to a few other Collective functions (chiefly one-off events on weekends) and frankly found the wall-to-wall, beer-swilling masses rather off-putting. These claustrophobic environments certainly aren’t limited to the No Kings Collective – it seems to be par for the course now in a city where being a hipster requires near religious attendance at local art soirees. Call me old fashioned (or just old), but I prefer to interact with art in more serene environments with a fair amount of elbow room.
Thankfully, I had all the space I needed on a weekday afternoon to take in this exhibition’s offerings. Past Collective events I’ve attended have skewed towards graffiti and street-inspired art which certainly seems to have a popular cachet these days, even as its quality can vary greatly from inspiring to downright tacky. The first floor of the exhibition is indeed an homage to graffiti, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of perspectives rather than repetitive tags on walls. Tim Conlon’s Mopac series features a life-sized, painted in place train car as backdrop for spray-painted canvases that seem to peel off the surface of the car like layers of rust. Conlon’s section contrasts nicely with paintings by Michael Owen, which appear to require the
use of 3D glasses. Owen’s surveillance-inspired paintings use contrasting layers of blue and red paints on black backgrounds to invoke a slight feeling of unease and remind us that we aren’t quite as anonymous on the public streets as we might believe. Max Kazemzadeh’s Antisocial Bots, an interactive piece featuring computer programmed robots, reflects some of street-art’s antisocial ethos with whimsy and downright humor.
The second floor of the exhibition features a wider array of artistic genres in a more traditional, gallery-style setting (there are even a few white walls!), which is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, I’m excited to see the Collective showing figurative paintings, minimalist sculpture and documentary photography. On the (slight) downside, it’s a lot of contextual information to take in, and I’m left wondering how the artists relate to one another in the show. Brandon Hill, one of the Collective’s organizers, steps in at this point to guide me through their curatorial process. According to Hill, the organizing theme for this particular show could be titled Ode to DC. Hill and his colleague Peter Chang looked for artists, “that [we felt] are cultural ambassadors,” representing the District’s current artistic climate. Artists were instructed to imagine what a solo show in a small gallery (such as Transformer off 14thStreet NW) would entail, then adapt one section of that solo show to the shared walls within this giant space. Their intention then isn’t necessarily to instill a feeling of uniformity; rather, they want you to see the wide breadth that DC has to offer through a series of unfolding vignettes. Curatorial directives are nonexistent; as artists themselves, Hill and Chang prefer to let the audience interpret the pieces without dictating preconceived notions regarding the artists’ intentions.
Those details certainly explain why so many artists went the route of large-scale installations and literally took ownership of their sections. However, this outlook on curating, while certainly egalitarian, can create a show that feels disjointed and less than a sum of its parts; completely unchecked it runs the risk of becoming an Artomatic free-for-all. Overall, Hill and Chang wisely cleave to artists who, while using different media and methods, evince a sense of youthful optimism in their outlook on the world. In addition to the aforementioned artists upstairs, Aniekan Udofia’s installation and paintings feature strong-willed women using pencils as their weapon of choice (complete with nibs as flying bullet shells), turning street violence on its head. Udofia’s installation contrasts nicely with Mathew Curran’s
mural and White Tale Deer series of works which marry an urban aesthetic with more traditional subject matter. Victoria Miklo’s installation documents the lives of firefighters in Hyattsville, MD in a manner that goes beyond traditional street photography. Living side-by-side with volunteer fire fighters provides her (and thus the audience) with a more nuanced view of what it means to live in service to others. Finally Burial Artifact 3012 by the artist duo Truth Among Liars uses “comfort dolls” and acrylics to envision what a future set of unearthed terra cotta warriors might look like.
While the Collective largely does create an overarching feeling of exuberance, some notes fall a bit flat. Works by Decoy and Kelly Towles felt one dimensional. Don’t get me wrong – individually I think they’re great artists — but in a show featuring fresh, conceptual pieces that push graffiti and street art in new directions, I felt like their pieces didn’t contribute to the conversation. On the flip side of the coin, James Kern’s installation piece featuring globes, salvaged wood, the head of a mountain goat and a map in of the Middle East (in German no less) was so all over the place that it was having a conversation of its own. In this case a sharper curatorial focus might have helped this piece find its voice within the group as a whole.
Still, I respect Hill and Chang for sticking to their curatorial philosophy. Hill makes no bones to me about the fact that they have no desire to model themselves after a traditional, brick-and-mortar gallery (or museum space for that matter). They believe that contemporary art should be allowed to speak for itself, and in a city that features a plethora of curator-driven venues, that’s actually a nice change of pace. And while afternoons are all about contemplating the art, music and spoken word performances in the evening turn this into a truly multimedia event!
subMERGE runs through Sunday, November 18th. Gallery hours are from 1-6pm with various musical performances scheduled in the evening. For a complete list of this weekend’s events, visit their website here, and for notifications of future exhibitions, be sure to follow them on facebook or twitter.