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Add on top of that, an outdated, but “alive and kicking” elitist attitude towards an open show, where anyone and everyone who calls him or herself an artist can exhibit, sans the sanitizing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

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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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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