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Lenny

In DC: Artomatic is coming again!

If you are an artist or art lover reading this post, then chances are that you already know what Artomatic (or AOM) is and all about this amazing spectacle.

But just in case, a little review.

About once a year or so, under the guiding hand of a board of hardworking artists and volunteers, a large, unoccupied building in the Greater Washington, DC area is identified, and eventually filled with hundreds of artists’ works, loads of theatre and dance performances, panels, and everything associated with breathing a powerful breath of energy into the Greater DC art scene.

Let’s review: The idea behind AOM is simple: find a large, empty building somewhere in the city; work with the building owners, and then allow any artist who wants to show their work help with staging the show, pay a small fee and work a few hours assisting with the show itself.

Any artist.

Artists love AOM, but most DC area art critics hate it.

Why?

I think that in order to write a proper, ethical review of AOM, a writer must spend hours walking several floors of art, jam-packed into hundreds of rooms, bathrooms, closets and stairs. And I think that this is one of the main reasons that most art critics love to hate this show. It overwhelms them with visual offerings and forces them to develop a “glance and judge” attitude towards the artwork. It’s a lot easier to carpet bomb a huge show like this than to do a surgical strike to try to find the great art buried by the overwhelming majority that constitutes the great democratic pile of so so artwork and really bad artwork.

Add on top of that, an outdated, but “alive and kicking” elitist attitude towards an open show, where anyone and everyone who calls him or herself an artist can exhibit, sans the sanitizing and all-knowing eye of the latest trendy curator, and you have a perfect formula for elitist dismissing of this show, without really looking at it.

This harsh and elitist attitude towards art is not new or even modern. It was the same attitude that caused the emergence of the salons of the 19th century, where only artists that the academic intelligentsia deemed good enough were exhibited. As every art student who almost flunked art history knows, towards the latter half of that century, the artists who had been rejected from the salons (because they didn’t fit the formula of good art) organized their own Salon Des Refuses, sort of a 19th century Parisian Art-O-Matique.

And a lot, in fact, most of the work in the Salon Des Refuses was quite so so, but amongst the dreck were also pearls like Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur ‘Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, (and we all know what art “ism” that title gave birth to) and an odd and memorable looking portrait of a young lady in white (The White Girl, Symphony in White, No. 1) by an American upstart by the name of James McNeill Whistler.

Everyone who was anyone in the art world hated and dismissed this anti-salon exhibition; except for the only one that really counts: Art History.

But how does a writer cover an arts extravaganza of the size of AOM once the eyes and mind become numb after the 200th artist, or the 400th or the 1,000th?

As an art critic, I once started a review of a past AOM by complaining how much my feet hurt after my 5th or 6th visit to the show, in a futile attempt to gather as much visual information as possible in order to write a fair review of the artwork. Over the years I have discovered that it is impossible to see everything and to be fair about anyone; the sheer size and evolving nature of the show itself makes sure of the impossibility of this task. But AOM is not just about the artwork.

As a gallerist, I also have visited AOM looking for new talent amongst the vast numbers of artists who come together under one roof. Over the years, together with my fellow DC area gallerists, we have plucked many artists from the ranks and files of AOM. Artists who since their first appearance at past AOMs have now joined the collections of museums and Biennials and have been picked up by galleries nationwide. Names like Tim Tate, the Dumbacher Brothers, Kelly Towles, Michael Janis, Kathryn Cornelius, Richard Chartier and that amazing worldwide phenomenon and best-selling author Frank Warren of PostSecret fame. But AOM is not just about the emerging superstar artist.

As an artist, one year I decided to participate in AOM, just to see what the guts of the machine looked like. “I know the monster well,” wrote the poet Jose Marti, “for I have lived in its entrails.”

My volunteer hours patrolling the halls on a Wednesday night at midnight, and still seeing people come in and out, and explore art on the wee hours of the morning, also left a footprint on the public impact of the exhibition. Dealing with prima donna artists, recharging my own artistic batteries from hundreds of fellow artists, many of them in their first public exposure, also left an impression. But AOM is not just about the public.

AOM is two things to me:

It is perhaps the nation’s most powerful incarnation of what it means to be a creative community of hundreds of working creative hands all aligned to not only create artwork, but also put together a spectacular extravaganza that re-charges the regional art scene as no museum or gallery show can. AOM is a community of artists employing the most liberal of approaches to art that there exists: the artists are in charge, and the artists make it work, and the artists charge the city with energy and zeal. And these descendants of those brave souls who challenged the academic salons of the 19th century face the same negative eye from the traditional art critics and curators of our museums, who challenge not just the art, but the concept of an open, non-juried, most democratic of art shows: a community of artists in charge of energizing the community at large. All good group shows must be curated! shout these chained critical voices.

And AOM is certainly the easiest and most comprehensive way to discover contemporary art at its battlefront lines, right at the birth of many artists, paradoxically showcasing the area’s artworld’s deepest and also its newest roots. This is where both the savvy collector, and the beginning collector, and the aspiring curator, and the sharp-eyed gallerist can come to one place with a sense of discovery in mind. And the ones that I missed in the past, and who were discovered by others, are ample evidence of the subjectivity of a 1,000+ group art show.

Viva AOM!

This year’s AOM runs from May 29 through July 5, 2009, and it is located at the new building at 55 M Street, S.E. - essentially on top the Navy Yard Metro - celebrating its tenth anniversary in a newly built 275,000 square foot “LEED Silver Class A building”, whatever that means. It is all free and open to the public and all the details and dates and parties and performances and panels, as well as all the participating artists can be found at Artomatic.org.

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Lenny

Studio Visit: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

She has been called “one of Boston’s most prominent artists,” and as evidence it has been submitted that the Cuban-born artist has shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian, the Venice Biennale, and many other prestigious venues around the world.

And last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted “Everything Is Separated by Water,” a mid-career retrospective of Campos-Pons’ paintings, sculptures, photos, and installations.

IMA poster for Campos-Pons exhibition

I visited Magda, as she is usually called, and we met in her four year old gallery, Gasp, which she and her husband opened in 2004 — and which according to the Boston press “specializes in group shows of young experimenting artists and stars from the international art circuit that her own stature attracts. It’s one of a handful of galleries in town that aren’t primarily commercial or institutional.”

“You look like one of my cousins,” she told me with a huge smile as we met; the smile would rarely leave her face during the three plus hours that I spent talking with this dynamo of a woman.

Campos-Pons was born in La Vega, in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, a sugar plantation town where her Nigerian great-great grandfather worked as a slave in Cuba’s brutal slave system, in which sugar mill owners often owned thousands of slaves and where life, death and rape were common parts of life.

In Spanish, Matanzas means “Slaughter” or “Killings” — imagine a US state or a Canadian province named “Slaughter.” It commemorates the actual suicide deaths of tens of thousands of Taino Indians who committed suicide rather than become slaves to their white masters from Spain as Kubanacan (as Cuba was known in the native Taino language) became a colony of the mighty Kingdom of Spain.

When Cuba’s native population died out from suicide or disease, the Conquistadores began the America’s slave trade and brought in African slaves purchased from the Arabs, and mostly on the brutal labor of their backbones, a new Cuban nation was forged eventually.

And as an Afro-Cuban woman, Campos-Pons has used her cultural and racial background the initial key theme of her own work, with long ties to her Cuban homeland, but also with a powerful influence of her evolving Americanosity.

We talked about Cuba, about her background there, her education, her growing disappointment with the intolerant and repressive Castro regime, her trials and tribulations in leaving the land that she loves so much, her marriage to the talented American musician Neil Leonard, the struggle to get a legal visa to the US - during which she lived for a year and a half in Canada on art fellowships with her husband visiting her on weekends, before she was allowed to immigrate to the US at the end of 1991.

We switched between machine-gun Cuban Spanish and English, as she described her gallery, which she is heroically building one room and idea at a time. I was amazed by a wide-planked wood floor that Magda constructed herself, the doorway that she cut through the wall, the translucent plastic materials that she uses very elegantly to cover up and separate areas and to create a resident artist’s studio, and the new expansive room that she is now building. “This gallery is an art installation in progress,” I thought to myself.

We discussed her then current show at the gallery, Are We There Yet? - curated by Dawoud Bey. It featured work by Howard Henry Chen, Alan Cohen, Christine DiThomas, Aron Gent, Rula Halawani, Surendra Lawoti, Curtis Mann, Oscar Palacio and Adriana Rios. I was particularly impressed by the work of Curtis Mann and Christine DiThomas. Mann’s compositional abilities and a very effective technique of distressing paper in order to acquire a good ground for the piece, really yields very memorable imagery, while DiThomas’ photographs transcend the focus of the show and float - aided considerably by the very elegant presentation and soft focus - a sense of time and place; they can be “modernized” images from the 50s, 60s or even colonial America.

Magda was enthusiastic and energizing in describing the show and the artists, and relating - from one gallerist to another now - the struggles and successes of running an independent art gallery: dealing with landlords, helping the emerging Brookline neighborhood establish a separate but individual identity rather than become another cookie-cutter gentrified neighborhood. She is a hurricane in action, one moment telling me about her plans to talk to a friend restauranteur into opening an Iranian food cafe that would feature artwork; the next moment talking about forging friendships with the new small businesses that have opened since they opened Gasp.

In the middle of this, a Chinese lady pops into the gallery. “I just cooked these and wanted to give you some,” she tells Magda as she hands her a bag full of noodles. She is the owner of a tiny new Chinese restaurant down the block. It is the perfect exclamation point to our conversation.

I’ve been there for over two hours and I still have not talked about her own work, but I have been hypnotized into talking for hours about Cuba, the gallery business, art, race, immigration, the press, Cuban food, cooking, her neighborhood, Boston, and even issues dealing with the plight of illegal aliens.

Her 15-year-old son Arcadio walks in, already half a foot taller than either one of us; it is time for Magda to check his homework assignment. They disappear for a while in the back of the gallery while she checks his laptop report. Later on I find out that Arcadio’s homework assignment is in fact assigned by his parents in exchange for computer gaming time. The assignment? To write four gallery or museum reviews a month. “He is really developing into a very good writer and critic,” the proud mother tells me.

When I am not here/Estoy Alla by Magda Campos-Pons
“When I am not here/Estoy Alla” c. 1994 by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

We digress into a discussion about children and she laughs as she tells me about the surreal experiences of a Cuban black woman in the wee hours of the morning taking her very Bostonian child to hockey practice in a freezing ice arena and also relates Arcadio’s visits to Cuba and how well he fit into the Cuban world of La Vega.

My wife calls and wants to know if she can run from the downtown hotel to the gallery and meet us. Magda, who also runs regularly, changes gears and gives her directions and is amazed when my wife shows up forty minutes later. “You ran from Copley to here already?” she asks amazed.

We start the gallery tour all over again - this is a gallerist possessed by love for her art and love for her gallery and the opportunity that it affords to the artists that she show. “We have a different model,” she tells us. “We have a curated show each month,” she explains, “with a thematic exhibition by several artists as well as a show by a new, emerging artist in the back room.”

We walk upstairs to her studio, on the way up she apologizes about the mess that we’re to expect. “All artists do this,” I think to myself. I have never been to a neat artist studio, and hopefully I never will.

She immediately begins to root around for things and artwork and post-cards and books and memories. “I never throw anything away,” she warns us as she dances around the crowded two rooms that make up her studio space. The walls are packed with both work by other artists, really advanced work by her son, and works in progress by Campos-Pons.

Like most Cuban artists, Magda is highly trained in nearly every facet of the fine arts: she is a printmaker, a painter, a sculptor, a videographer, a photographer and even a glass artist.

Over the years her photographic work has been a prominent member of the leading visual imagery of contemporary art; the one below (of Magda and her mother) once graced the cover page of the New York Times’ art section…
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

As most artists who dance at the top of the art world know, it is a hard dance, and continuing exploration of what fuels the fire of being an artist becomes an essential part of continuing success.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Backyard Dreams #5, c.2005.

We begin discussing her latest works and Magda dissolves and melts in front of my eyes, and reforms herself into a fountain spewing multiple jets of information at once.

There’s something unique about this talented artist - she’s the Cuban art world’s Pocahantas to the New Yorkish John Smith art universe. Through her and her work, Cuba’s bloody African entrails are exposed, perhaps to the chagrin of Miami’s powerful and nearly all white Cuban-American population. Like Pocahantas, she learned English harshly and quickly, and also like Pocahantas, she learned to adapt as needed and become a new entity in an almost colorless new world.

Through her and her art, first Bostonians and then the art universe was given a high dose of Cuban art education, and within that art world even African-Americans were also initiated: “you are not the only ones, my Northern brothers and sisters,” her artwork shouts to the four corners of America.

It is all a good thing for art, because the most important achievement that her artwork has caused is to deliver Campos-Pons from precisely all those boxes and labels that we are all so fond of trying to pin on artists.

In a very strong sense, her artwork and her success has liberated her from labels, and while her Cubanosity has certainly fueled her artistic personna and productivity, it is her talent and work ethic as an artist that now has her as just a brilliantly talented artist simply producing great art.

Art.

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Admin

A TOUR OF PHILLY (in two parts)

Starting with the South Philly Biennial and heading north.

Though it took up no more then a parking lot roughly the size of one-third a football field (if that) and I’m not sure if it can yet properly be called a biennial, this being the first and possibly last year of it’s existence, the “South Philly Biennial” seems about as good event as any to stop and reflect a little on the myriad of players in Philadelphia’s art scene. I’m going to be writing about the shows I see in many of these tiny and often hard to find alternative spaces, or smaller commercial exhibition spaces, so I thought it might be a good idea to give you some background. . . as often times with art, the location of the show and the people who made it possible are overlooked. 

The blog for the event, is a very good place to start, as I’m guessing Athena Barat (the biennial’s organizer), wrote nice little summaries about many of the groups involved. Through it you can become intimate with legendary Philadelphia art-bloggers Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof, who were both given awards at the biennial for “helping art grow”.  Libby and Roberta seem to get to just about every show in Philadelphia, always check artblog before a trip into the City of Brotherly Love, or you might miss something you would rather not. 

Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon receive an award from Athena Barat. 

One of the only actual “South Philly” spaces represented at the biennial was Bobo’s on 9th, a gallery that is also a band formed of Nick Payne, Phil Cote, and Drew Gillespie. Bobo’s has some really wild shows that often involved outsider-looking drawings, neon colors, and tape. Famously, one of the gallery’s window displays, that involved photo-copied money, was confiscated by some government officials. My favorite part of the exhibition space is the fact that they change the floor covering for every show (one month it might be covered in cardboard, a rug, fake stone, etc.). Reading their biennial page I have become aware that the spaces’ founders are orchestrating something for Foxy Productions (New York) in July, so you might be hearing more on them. 

Moving North, I’d like to introduce you to two of the cities longest-running artist-run spaces, and by their very obvious differences open your awareness of just some of the differing paradigms artists work under these days:

Space1026 constructs a structure for Locally Localized Gravity at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Space 1026, Located at 1026 Arch Street, in what is pretty much the southern tip of Philadelphia’s “China Town” neighborhood, has been around for ten plus years now. They are a huge force in Philly, summoning large amounts of energy from their ever rotating and large mass of members, which at Space basically means a person who rents a studio at 1026 Arch Street, or anyone who would like to donate their time. Screen-printing is the thing at Space 1026 and I like to imagine that years from now I will see someone on Antiques Roadshow announcing that “the prints they have were made in Space1026 an artist collective in”. . . because there is certainly a “Space-look” to most of the work made there, and much of it deserves to have it’s little place cut into history. Famouser Spacers include Andrew Jeffery Wright, Jim Houser, Thom Lessner. . .  (I could go on but just check the website, if I try to name everyone someone will get upset with me). 

In direct contrast to the paint-splattered DIY floors of Space1026 stands the white-walled Vox Populi, an artist-run for-really and legally non-profit with board members and everything. Vox currently resides on the 3rd floor of 319 N. 11th St, on the northern tip of China Town, not more then a five-minute walk from Space1026. Vox Populi has been around for 20 years (not all of them in the same location), like space it has an ever-rotating cast of artists, but the artists at Vox seem more geared toward conceptual thinking and the experience of an exhibition at Vox is usually more cerebral then visual. You will never be able to say that the artists of Vox Populi all make a similar product, use a similar medium, or even have the same underlying ideology. 

Next to Vox, on the same floor, in the same building, is a little space I help to run called Copy. Copy can be loosely described as an experiment in trying to figure out what art means today, each month is curated by a different member. Copy is in the same location as the first gallery I was ever a part of, Black Floor. When we changed the name and ended the first venture, we simply made the space smaller and sanded off the black paint. 

Luren Jenison and Jamie Dillon sand away Black Floor to make Copy.

There’s still more to come, so look for part two of my little tour tomorrow!

 

 

 

 

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Lenny

Artomatic baby!

A few days ago I discussed the Greater Washington, DC area art extravaganza known as “Artomatic” and gave you readers a little history in this massive, open, anyone-can-hang, art show.

Nearly all art critics and writers hate it, and nearly every DC area artist and the 40,000 or so other folk who visit the show, enjoy it.

Putting on my pop psychology hat, I think that the real reason that most art critics hate Artomatic is that they get visual overload very quickly.  C’mon folks, how does a writer cover an art show of the size of Artomatic once the eyes and mind become numb after the 200th artist, or the 400th or the 600th?

It would be the equivalent of assigning someone the task to review a major museum in a day and come up with a decent review, where both the crappy artists hang with the masters.

And Artomatic has returned to the Greater Washington, DC region. It opened in May and runs through June 15, 2008.

Anyone can hang, install and display work at Artomatic. It is the world’s largest and first self-curated, open Biennial. And this is the District of Columbia’s novel American contribution to the world of the art fair, from an artists’ perspective.

A mock Biennial that freely accepts anywhere from 600 - 1,000 painters, sculptors, printmakers, actors, musicians, photographers, weekend painters, major artists, bums, pornographers, actors and bartenders and then finds an empty building and fills it with artwork, stages, theatres, stores, furniture, parties, lectures and controversy.

And this wild, artist-run AOM model has managed to fuel the dislike of most art critics and the love and passion of thousands of artists and art lovers. The arts intelligentsia doesn’t like it when artists rule the day.

And AOM also creates the Greater Washington DC’s uber arts event of the year – it happens irregularly every couple of years or so. About 40,000 people will visit the event this year, and some new artists will be discovered, and a lot of artwork will be sold, and a lot will be laughed at, and a lot of illicit sex will take place, and some controversy will arise, and a lot of new artistic energy will be created.

As an art critic, I once started a review of a past AOM by complaining how much my feet hurt after my 5th or 6th visit to the show, in what at the time was my very futile attempt to gather as much visual information as possible in order to write a fair review of the artwork and artists.

No one can do that. No se puede hacer!

Over the years that I have visited past Artomatics (and I have seen them all) I have discovered that it is impossible to see and absorb everything and to be fair about anyone; the sheer size and evolving nature of AOM makes sure of the impossibility of this task. In fact, I have visited AOM twice this time around, and I think that I may have missed a whole floor so far.

As I said, we in the DC area know that local art critics tend to savage Artomatic; they demand a curatorial hand; they want order; they want “bad” art out and only “high art” in; and year after year, they all miss the point! And this year the Washington Post and most mainstream media will all but ignore the region’s largest art exhibition.

Here’s the key: AOM is not just about the artwork, it is about the artistic energy that it radiates, it is about art community, it is about a free for all, it is about controversy, and it is about anyone who wants to call him/herself an artist.

The current AOM is at a spectacular location at the Capitol Plaza I building at 1200 First Street, NE in DC. There are seven, maybe eight or nine floors of artwork all the way up to the 11th floor, located and installed in many mini galleries with spectacular views of the city.

My main impression at this year’s AOM: loads and loads of space and loads of twentysomethings doing twentysomething artwork.

Plenty of space yields a really decent opportunity to display your work well, and one interesting maturity factor in this AOM is how professionally many artists are displaying their work. On the other hand, because of all the available space, this AOM also yields a significant number of really bad “installations” with all sorts of furniture and stuff.

Historically each AOM has delivered significant artistic discoveries for art lovers, art collectors and dealers. People like Tim Tate, Frank Warren, Kathryn Cornelius, the Dumbacher Brothers, etc., all showed at AOM; some still do. Tim Tate sold his sculptures at AOM a few years ago for $300; today they get as much as $41,000 at auctions. Frank Warren started his spectacular “PostSecret” worldwide art installation at AOM; today his project is one of the most visited websites on the web and he’s had multiple art books on the best-seller list.

And so part of the fun of visiting AOM is “discovering” who will be the 2008 AOM emerging art star. In that spirit I will ignore all the well-known names who are exhibiting this year at AOM and try to find artists whose work is new or little known to me. In this review I will create a sort of short list based on two trips; on my third trip I will finalize my initial picks for emerging art stardom.

Working our way up, on the 4th floor I quite liked the work of Amanda Engels, who is showing a series of portraits that work well in capturing a sense of time and presence about the subject. I also liked Genna Gurvich’s painterly and almost surreal work, especially her innovative and intelligent take on the often visited Campbell’s soup can; and believe me, it takes a lot of creativity to say something new with such an art world subject icon - and she does!
Self Conscious by Genna Gurvich

Yet, my pick for key artist on that floor is Cristina Montejo, whose quirky and sexy drawings stand to draw attention from collectors. Keep an eye on Montejo, and buy some of this artwork now.

On the 5th floor I liked the severe abstract paintings of Matthew Langley and on the 6th floor Holly Burns’ pen and ink drawings on napkins are a treasure trove for beginning art collectors. They are fresh and young and hip. They are also superbly done and I bet that we’ll hear about this artist again and again.

Drawings by Holly Burns
Holly Burns’ pen and ink drawings on napkins

I also like Michelle Chin’s over simplified bug cut-outs and Nancy Donnelly’s glass dresses. The latter are elegant, simple pieces that should attract a galleristor two to them and continues to showcase the District’s abundance of talented glass artists.

I was also taken by Shannon McCarty’s inventive set of burned iron marks. They reveal the surprising achievement of minimalism when employed smartly as McCarthy does in her laundry style installation. Also minimalist are the hi tech (looking) works by Paul So. Also visit Keith Thomas on that floor.

 McCarthy
Shannon McCarthy’s burned iron marks installation at AOM

The 7th floor is a treasure trove of good artists amongst the adequate masses. Nana Bagdavadze is somewhat channeling the super-talented and highly acclaimed DC area artists Amy Lin to the third dimension as she takes the Lin’s vision of a small circle to an illusion of three-D organic DNAish form. Teague Clare’s intimate but very cool pieces are also quite good as are Juan del Alamo photographic test strips. Both these artists also know how important presentation is and have done well in maximizing their space while giving it a clean look. Also visit Damien Gill’s elegant digital works.

By the way, this “clean look” is something new in AOM. The exhibition has somewhat matured and “professionalized” in leaps and bounds. There is little of the amateur in the presentation left in this version. It is there, but not in the majority.

I know Rania Hassan’s works, but in this AOM she re-invents herself in a very elegant installation that goes from 2D to 3D right before our eyes. It is sophisticated and elegant, and another clear indication of the level of maturity that AOM has achieved over the years.

Dale Hunt’s monster art is also fresh and reflects a clear AOM trend for young, hip, simple art that is deceptively complex beneath the first visual impression. There is a lot of this “young art” in AOM this year, as well as a lot of tattoo art. Also visit Brad Taylor and see what an artist can do with those tabs in beer and soda cans.

The 8th floor’s find is Michael Auger’s dayglow mini paintings – like Dale Hunt, this artist fits into that young, smart art that is both attractive, simple and yet appealing to the visual senses; at $35 for an original, they’re also a helluva good deal.

The DC area is a Mecca for world class smart, innovative fine art glass and perhaps its leader in bringing glass to a higher place and away from the craft world. David D’Orio’s works join that new emerging movement and are very good.

I also liked the fresh skill in Todd Gardner’s portraits.

The 9th floor offers the very cool mini photos by Erin Antognoli, really good work by Jeanette Herrera and Barbara Johnson-Grener.

Also Kim Reyes’ ceramic wall figures caught my eyes as a good find for sculpture lovers. On this floor you’ll also find Andrew Wodzianski and Kirk Waldroff (OK, OK… so I know them and represent one of them).

The 10th floor has my key find for AOM.

And it is not a single artist but a highly sophisticated multi-artist exhibition titled “Coincide.” This is the AOM find of the year.

If you are a harsh critic of AOM’s free for all art approach, and don’t want to look at the work of 800 artists, just drive up to AOM, go to the 10th floor and look at the work of the 17 artists in “Coincide.”

Using Star Trek technology, we can easily imagine teleporting this entire massive contemporary ceramic art installation to any gallery or museum in the world and no one would blink an eye. It is a triumph of severe presentation and talented artists, and it is also a giant leap forward in the maturation process of AOM itself.

These are skilled, innovative, ordained ceramic artists, whose work is as far from “amateur” – the usual adjective applied wholesale to AOM – as Warp 9 is far from 55 MPH.

Big names like Laurel Lukaszewski, who shows locally at Project 4 Gallery (one of the best, fresh new galleries in DC) and nationally at other various venues, are complemented by (new to me) artists like Leila Holtsman (whose piece I hereby select as the best single work of art in AOM), Novie Trump, Ani Kasten, Kate Hardy (gorgeously displayed) and others in this spectacular group.


Leila Holtsman at AOM

Also on that floor I quite liked the brilliantly yellow installation work by Bryan Rojsuontikul, who joins the tradition of artists working with common materials (in this case yellow and silver Duck tape) to deliver breathtaking minimalist works of art. Also check out Alexandra Zealand.

On the 11th floor I enjoyed the work of Krissy Downing and Gregory Ferrand and then really enjoyed Veronica Szalus’ floor sculpture of painted ball objects. Also on this floor be prepared to be quite taken by Tracy Lee’s familial installation of family memorabilia (and I just broke my rule again, since I know Lee’s work well, but this installation doesn’t fit with her previous set of photographs). Since I broke that rule, also on this floor, super sexy abstract work by Pat Goslee and representational by Candace Keegan.

If you want a quick video walkthrough AOM, check out the video below. The music has been married to this video on purpose from the perspective of AOM’s past treatment by local art critics. I suspect that many of them will not visit this year’s AOM simply because they’ve already made their minds without seeing the art - ahead of time as a DC critic was once ”caught” doing - closed minds that say that the show sucks because it’s all open and a an artistic free for all.

By the way, the art that pops up when Lennon first sings “they’re going to crucify me”is bordering on being one of the art world’s oddest coincidences, since I didn’t synchthe music to video to pre-arrange for that art to pop up at that time… it is worth viewing the video just for that! Be prepared to be chilled!


AOM is free and open to the public and runs through June 15, 2008. All the info that you need is online at www.artomatic.org.

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Bill

Andrea Ray – Désire – Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University

I knew nothing about the student uprisings in Paris in May of 1968 prior to stopping by Zilkha Gallery, and what little I know now comes from limited reading afterward. Neither a visit to Andrea Ray’s exhibition, nor twenty minutes of reading, is likely to inform me greatly about this important historical moment. Take that for a disclaimer before reading on.

In very broad overview, it appears that the conflict was fairly typical for its time; liberal college students had gripes against a conservative establishment and held a variety of protests. The universities at first intervened, but were then overwhelmed. The government’s subsequent interventions were so heavy-handed as to turn the public away from the conservative, traditionalist establishment, and toward the liberal causes and interests of the students. This, I now read, apparently resulted in a broad cultural shift away from conservatism in France. May of 2008 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Paris student uprisings, not a bad time for some to reconsider them, and for others, like me, to learn about them.

In the handout accompanying this three-part exhibition, Ms. Ray asks, “Could the Paris model of community, social and political agency be employed in this country at a time when deepening crisis is coupled with fear and apathy?” Parallels between Paris in 1968 and America in 2008 are rather painful on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe the abundance of online outlets for bloviation has bled away the impetus to take to the streets, or depressed us into apathetic torpor. Regardless, there have been few times in history when Americans have had so much worth protesting.

The first component of Désire I encountered was Rehearse, in the cavernous concrete Main Gallery. Picture a long room, glass on the left, gray concrete floor and wall to the right, perhaps fifteen feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long, ceiling far overhead. Along the floor, parallel rows of low gray boxes, looking like tall square pedestals lain on their sides, are arranged like pews in a chapel. At the front are two very large black-fronted speaker cabinets, poorly crafted. Voices ring from the speakers against the cold walls, actors reciting a dramatic script.

Ms. Ray’s literature states that “The audio component of Rehearse is loosely based on (writer and director Marguerite) Duras’ screenplay for the 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour and conveys the impossibility of speaking of war – as discussed through the discourse of love and metonymic desire.” For me, competent acting made Hiroshima’s somewhat tedious love story bearable. I found the audio acting in Rehearse quite difficult to listen to. One female voice in particular carried the heavy over-enunciation you sometimes hear in certain poets who apparently savor every phoneme like fine wine. After a few minutes I had to move on, keeping the memory of the stark dramatic read in mind.

The remaining two components of Désire were situated at the far end of Zilkha Gallery. Fifteen blurry photos of empty Paris intersections filled three walls of the end chamber, each photo perhaps 18 x 24 inches – again, I’m estimating. Titled Occupied, this series shows streets that students blocked during the Paris uprisings. Their absence, and, for me, the absence of any living person in most of the photographs, gave a haunted feeling to them that was only accentuated by their blurriness. In some cases civic architecture filled the astigmatic distance, giving the sense of lost or distorted political identity. A kind of longing permeates these images, independent even of the artist’s intended meaning, and I found myself returning to them again and again. In considering them now, I sense a longing for a culture that, even if only a short jog away, seems somehow to be irretrievably lost.

These images surrounded on three sides The Gift, a finely crafted piece consisting of a long dinner table and chairs made out of flawless plywood, with six beige-colored speakers sunk into the table’s surface. From Ms. Ray’s literature:

“At her dinner parties on rue Saint-Benoît, Duras often served a homemade soup. The Gift, then, is a recorded dinner party. It is the result of an actual dinner party at the artist’s home at which she served a “conceptual soup” to honor Duras’ memory. The conversations at the dinner party were recorded with a microphone at each seat. They are replayed in The Gift on individual speakers at each place setting.”

This visually enjoyable piece is clearly symbolic; the perfectly right-angled chairs would be murder to sit in, let alone enjoy a meal. All sawn angles are pure and perfect at ninety degrees. Plywood – you use it to cover shattered windows, or to protect them from shattering, or to hammer together impromptu structures when time is of the essence, yet this plywood has clearly seen no violence. The sense of an invitation to join the table is mitigated by the aforementioned torture seats and by the places being filled with voice-emitting speakers. Nonetheless, for a while, anyway, I wanted to be a part of the conversation.

And yet it was all so cold. The conversation occurred at the same temperature as the dining set’s mathematical perfection. Six (apparently) people extemporized (again, apparently) over politics and the Paris student uprisings with the chill reserve of the white-bread upper-middle-class. Voices at times rose to the mid-level passion appropriate to polite dinner conversation, and were mingled with the sounds of eating, utensils clinking against porcelain, mouths chewing, sipping, breathing.

The square edges and coldness of The Gift returned me mentally to the difficult enunciations of Rehearse, and back again to the empty intersections of Occupied. I found myself regretting the absence of warm, living and acting people, and the distance we stand now from the volatility, if not the danger, of a world that, even as late as May of 1968, had youth, greenness, potential.

Désire is on view at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University until May 25.

Image from The Hartford Courant

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Lenny

Artomatic

It takes an empty building, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 visual artists, actors, bartenders, and art lovers; a lot of hard work, very few rules, and you get Artomatic.

Held irregularly every couple of years or so since 1999, Artomatic is the Greater Washington, DC region’s free-for-all, non juried, all open, democratic visual arts extravaganza and the closest art event that our nation’s capital has to an open art biennial.

Back in 1999 a handful of enterprising and hardworking DC area artists convinced the management of an empty historical building to let them use the building for an open art show. Within a month, three hundred and fifty artists had cleaned, installed lights, painted and gallerized the 100,000 square feet building which once hosted a massive laundry and dry cleaning business. That year over 20,000 visitors attended the first Artomatic, held over six weeks, by far the largest art event held in DC that year.

And it continued to grow and expand as empty buildings were made available to Artomatic artists by developers.

By 2000 music and performances of all kinds became part of the event, and in that second year 665 artists exhibited and 200 performed as thousands of visitors flocked to the show.

In 2002 more than 1,000 artists and performers took part in the event and even more joined in 2004 at the old Capitol Children’s Museum. By then over 40,000 people were visiting the show and also by then the Washington main stream media was savaging the show, aiming its criticism at the lack of a curatorial hand and ignoring the key core of the event: a free and open exhibition for all.

Blake Gopnik, the erudite and Oxford-educated Chief Art Critic for the Washington Post wrote:

Here’s a fine idea. Let’s find an abandoned school and then invite local dentists to ply their trade, free of charge, in its crumbling classrooms, peeling corridors and dripping toilets. Okay, so maybe we won’t get practicing dentists to come, but we might get some dental students, hygienists and retirees to join in our Happy Tooth festival. What the heck, let’s not be elitists here: Why don’t we just invite anyone with a yen for tooth work or some skill with drills to give it a go. Then we can all line up, open wide and see what happens.

I’ll be at the front of the line.

After all, it could hardly be more excruciating than this year’s Artomatic, the fourth edition of the District’s creative free-for-all, which opens tomorrow. Organizers have gotten about 600 local “artists” — anyone who could ante up the $60 fee and 15 hours of his or her time, in fact — to display their creations. They’re on show in the sprawling, scruffy building in north Capitol Hill that once housed the Capital Children’s Museum and several charter schools.

The result is the second-worst display of art I’ve ever seen. The only one to beat it out, by the thinnest of split hairs, was the 2002 Artomatic, which was worse only by virtue of being even bigger and in an even more atrocious space, down by the waterfront in a vacant modern office building.

I won’t dwell on the art. And I certainly won’t name names. No one needs to know who made the wallfuls of amateur watercolors, yards of incompetent oil paintings, acres of trite street photography and square miles of naive installation art that will be polluting this innocent old building for the next three weeks. There’s something for everyone to hate. The rest are works only a mother could love.

But art lovers, art dealers seeking new talent, art collectors looking for new art, and artists looking to exhibit their work, continued to love the event, and Artomatic made a stop in neighboring Virginia for the first time last year, occupying the former Patent and Trademark building in nearby Crystal City right across the Potomac River. In spite of even more hostile critical reviews from the press, it drew over 40,000 visitors.

What Gopnik and other harsh art critics of AOM miss, is that the event is not just about the art. Take any 1,000 artist-event, even a curated one, and you’ll be astounded by the degree of “bad art” that gets included. Do the last 2-3 Whitney Biennials come to mind?

Artomatic (or AOM as the locals call it) is also about delivering spectacular re-charging of artistic batteries for a city often dominated by poisonous partisan politics, world class museums that ignore local artists, powerful media presences that focus on politics and ignore a vibrant regional art scene, and one of the highest concentrations of individual wealth in the world with apparent little interest in acquiring original art.

At AOM, artists mingle with each other, learn from each other, party with each other, and – and this is a really important and – exhibit and show their work to 40,000 people who otherwise would be blissfully ignorant of the healthy and vibrant art scene in the Greater DC region.

And it pays off for the few who rise above the masses.

Just this year Gopnik wrote glowingly of the very talented Dumbacher brothers artistic team; one of their first DC appearances was the 1999 AOM. The second AOM saw the debut of Tim Tate. At that AOM you could purchase an original Tate glass sculpture for $300. I discovered Tate there and we gave him his first gallery solo show in my former gallery in Georgetown. A few weeks ago, two Tate pieces were auctioned off for $41,000 each.

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you are familiar with the Postsecret phenomenon. Its brilliant creative mind, Frank Warren, started his amazing worldwide art project at the third AOM.

Those are some of the big name success stories of this amazing arts extravaganza; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other success stories associated with the event, which keeps growing, showing and recharging our artistic spirit, in spite of those who simply see bad art in front of them.

The current version of Artomatic opened on May 9 and runs through June 15, 2008. It is located at the Capitol Plaza I building (located at 1200 First Street, NE in Washington, DC). All the events and details that you need to know are at www.artomatic.org.

Later: a review of the 2008 Artomatic.

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