- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

Yes, it’s true. The District, long considered a cultural backwater for artists building careers, has become a hotbed of opportunity. The first exhibit to document this once almost unimaginable phenomenon is the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Census 03: New Art From DC.” Despite its off-putting name, the electrifying exhibit shows six artists — ranging in age from 29 to 50 — who are jazzing up the local scene.

Three introduce the show. Sculptor Dan Steinhilber, digital media artist Randall Packer and hip-hop culture painter Iona Rozeal Brown work with socially and politically explosive issues. The other three — latex paint artist Maggie Michael, portraitist Tim Doud and glass sculptor Graham Caldwell — update traditional uses of color and paint. Highly fertile imaginations connect all six D.C. residents.

“I’d been thinking for a long time about doing a show specifically based on Washington, D.C., artists,” says exhibit curator Paul Brewer, 30, former director of College Exhibitions at the Corcoran. Because of what he sees as the diversity of artists’ creativity in the D.C. art community, he looked to the U.S. government’s yearly population survey for a title for the show. With the name “Census 03,” he meant to convey that the exhibit reflects his sampling of ideas popular in the local art scene. The title is obtuse, but fortunately, the exhibit is not.

This is no “New Talent” show. The artists already have important track records.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden honors Mr. Steinhilber, 31, a recent master of fine arts graduate of American University, with a solo exhibition called “Directions — Dan Steinhilber” opening Sept. 27 in its Directions Gallery. It marks the first time the Hirshhorn has showcased the work of a young D.C. artist.

Mr. Steinhilber’s enormous sculpture of white paper cups and gray trays — named “Untitled” — is the first of the works of the three artists working with social and political concerns at the Corcoran to greet visitors to the exhibit. Noted for his resourceful and beautiful use of everyday materials, the artist combined thousands of these paper goods for the 12-foot-high construction.

It splays out from a narrow front to a fuller back that invites the visitor to walk around it. Although Mr. Steinhilber says he’s not influenced by Asian art, the work calls up Buddhist temples in India where worshippers walk around a central image. The walking, which is combined with chanting in Asia, underlines the sculptor’s ceaseless repeating of paper forms and their accompanying shadows. Both invite meditation.

Mr. Packer’s socially and politically conscious art could not be more different. Beauty’s not the object; outrage through humor is. He “created” the U.S. Department of Art & Technology, a pretend government agency, with digital techniques. The artist shows his “alternate reality” program, formerly seen only online, for the first time as a viewable installation. With other artists before him who have used other mediums, he explores the real and unreal. He appoints himself “Department Secretary” and shows his “travel” and “speechmaking” with photographs and text.

Across the room, Miss Brown turns out another bit of ironic humor. Playing on an early interest in Asian culture — her parents took her to Japanese kabuki and bunraku performances as a youngster in the District — she combines black hip-hop culture with kabuki theatrical icons.

“A3… ‘blackface #50’” shows a woodcut-print, ukiyoe-style actor in full kimono dress but with an Afro hair style and brown face. She says she wants to explore the global influence of hip-hop dress and music on youngsters around the world in her musical compositions and performances.

Prominent U.S. artist Frank Stella once said “painting is dead,” and judging from artists’ current interest in installation and performance art, this may be true. The artists in the exhibit’s second gallery, however, say “no,” there’s still a lot to be said with painterly pursuits.

Maggie Michael, 29, puts a new twist on abstract expressionism by dripping and pouring latex paint onto huge canvases. Mr. Doud tackles what Mr. Brewer calls “the weighty, loaded history” of portraiture by inviting his sitters to participate. And Mr. Caldwell displays the almost incomprehensible beauty of the liquid color that floats in the “tears” of his glass sculptures.

Miss Michael, Dan Steinhilber’s wife, engages in the all-or-nothing pouring-paint gymnastics of pioneer abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock and also looks carefully at New York painter Helen Frankenthaler. The older artist always said she feared her canvases would be “too planned” or “too beautiful” looking. The younger painter evidently has no such fears.

In “Grabber,” for example, Miss Michael pours latex and ink on canvas, carefully pouring one image and then simulating it with another dripped “pour.” Her shapes are more minimal than Miss Frankenthaler’s, the color less brilliant and flowing. Yet Miss Michael — evoking the older artist’s overall gestural style and swinging, calligraphic accents — shows herself a follower with lots of good new ideas.

Mr. Doud, who teaches at American University, could be called a traditional portraitist were it not for the participatory nature of his depictions. The artist encourages his sitters to come to the studio with whatever costume or dress they feel best expresses their personalities. The friend who came to be painted in “Football” chose to appear naked except for the football. In “Dirty Martini,” a heavily made-up actress friend looks intently at a small bird perched near her.

Mr. Brewer, who’s working with a fellowship at the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., saw what nobody else in town realized. The District is a hot visual arts town and getting hotter.

WHAT: “Census 03: New Art from DC”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday, closed Tuesday, through Oct. 6

TICKETS: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $8 for families, $3 for students ages 13 to 18 and member guests

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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