The challenge of working with the new three-story Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center’s mostly curved 30,000-square-foot gallery space has resulted in the American University Museum’s “Soft Openings,” an innovative symbiosis of art, architecture and exhibit design.
The show, which inaugurates the Katzen Center today, features 22 artists from the Washington-Baltimore area as well as several from New York, the West Coast, Canada and Puerto Rico. Art styles range from abstraction and surrealism to symbolism and realism, while mediums include painting, black graphite, colored pencil, photography, sculpture and installation art.
[At the invitation of Katzen Center curator and Director Jack Rasmussen, noted local artists, including Sam Gilliam, Taiwan-born graphic artist Hsin-Hsi Chen and geometric painter-sculptor Lee Haner, have created site-specific works designed for spaces of their own choosing.
From the gallery’s 60-foot-high skylight, Mr. Gilliam has hung a draped, brightly stained, nine-sectioned nylon installation evoking birds swooping downward. Miss Chen requested that her convex wall be painted black before she stretched her surreal, M.C. Escher-like architectural shapes across it. Mr. Haner also worked with a curving wall, on which he paraded eight three-dimensional, geometrically configured paintings that can be experienced as moving film strips.
The curator also chose top-notch two-dimensional works by local artists, including underexhibited paintings and drawings by Washingtonians Joe Shannon, Jody Mussoff, AU art professor emeritus Ben L. Summerford and Madeleine Keesing, as well as Grace Hartigan, who exhibits in Baltimore.
Mr. Shannon — a senior presence on the local arts scene noted for his strange, psychologically charged oils — painted “Dance Life: Family Group” in 1994. In this large oil, the artist painted himself and his family in simultaneously disconnected and connected relationships. He stands near a basketball, his wife faces onlookers impassively, and his daughters appear both shocked and numb.
The works of Miss Mussoff and Mr. Summerford were once fixtures on this city’s art scene. The former’s strange female heads, such as “Hair II,” are still frightening and intriguing, and Mr. Summerford’s softly brushed impressionist still-lifes are still appealing.
Baltimorean Grace Hartigan, now 83 and once a powerhouse on the abstract-expressionist scene, shows strongly outlined classical females on a stained pink-and-lavender ground, while Miss Keesing applies thousands of tiny dots of oil pigment for lovely abstract canvases.
Yet it’s the impressive site-specific works that stand out. Artists Kristin Holder and Yuriko Yamaguchi have each created an installation involving what they call “nature’s webs.” Working on a 1,000-square-foot curved wall, Miss Holder painted “Untitled (Qi),” a huge, intricate wall-drawn casein web that she depicts as a many-faceted organism.
Miss Yamaguchi’s “web” is the 8-foot-in-diameter, ceiling-hung, light-filled “Core” (still in the process of installation when viewed by this critic). She sees its wire-encased abaca-flax pods as revealing the interconnectedness of people — both with each other and with the environment. For the artist, the interior light at the “core” of the installation symbolizes hope in what she calls “light’s attraction for all creatures.”
More massive, but reflecting the “webs’” harmonious balances, is Baltimorean John Ruppert’s site-specific “River Jacks.” The sculpture evokes nature’s processes in its repetitions of the form of a 700-pound Canadian river boulder in bronze, copper and rusted steel. Directly above, on the next level, is the 11-foot-high “Crucible,” a weaving of heavy cyclone fences into a voluminous yet delicate cuplike form. They are the most extraordinary works in this often experimental, always fascinating inaugural show.
WHAT: “Soft Openings”
WHERE: The American University Museum of the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW
WHEN: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Through Sept. 17