There’s almost always something worth seeing at the American University Museum. As director and curator Jack Rasmussen says, the school’s year-round exhibition schedule — which features four to six new shows every two months — is like a three-ring circus. Much like the marquee, it can be difficult to know where to look.
The current list of American exhibits is typically eclectic: a Cuban painter; three sculptors (two from St. Petersburg, Russia, one from Washington); a quartet of conceptual photographers; and a bag of surreal images from the estate of the late Washington collector H. Marc Means. But the band’s funniest, sexiest, and smartest show is a celebration of the century-old legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the “readymade.”
Curated by artist, writer, and educator Mark Cameron Boyd, “[email protected]” is a survey of contemporary artwork inspired by Duchamp’s concept of readymade artwork. (In 1914, Duchamp exhibited an ordinary commercial metal rack used to dry bottles and called it a sculpture. Ironically, the original was mistakenly discarded as trash, although replicas of the part were then manufactured.)
True to its name, “[email protected]” features pre-made artwork made from materials you can salvage from Home Depot: nail gun cartridges, shovels, a flashlight, hex head bolts and razor blades. Some of these things function as works of art simply because of the aesthetic way in which they are presented. Kristin Richards’ “Rug 001,” for example, features 31,876 framing nails arranged in neat rows, like a patterned rug. Others take on the meaning of a dark and ironic title. Andrew Simmons’ framed and mounted razor blade is called, quite discreetly, “Cure for Human Suffering”. Still others have invisible conceptual weight. “We go to bed, but we don’t sleep too much” by Adam Farcus is a flashlight – turned on but positioned upside down so its beam shines directly into the ground.
Wendy Ross’ piece – a rectangular wood and metal box spring called “Woven Dreams: Always + Already Made & Unmade” – has a bit of a joke inside. It is a beautiful object, pure and simple. But the fact that the bed coils also resemble Ross’s welded metal sculptures — whose signature style can be seen in public installations around the Washington DC area — lends the work an extra layer of fun.
Some pieces have a cheeky sense of humor. “Brass With Lock” by Kate Kretz features a set of brass-colored testicles, sold as a novelty item to truckers and other motorists who clip them to the undercarriage of their vehicles. “My First Bra”, by Anne Mourier, is a matching pair of domed, breast-shaped glass plates placed on paper doilies.
But the show is more than sneering, sophomoric humor. Benjamin Kelley’s “Untitled (Newport)” is the body of a 1971 Chrysler Newport automobile, sawed sideways in half and exposed on the side as a steel abstraction. As with “Cadillac Ranch” – the famous 1974 art installation of overturned Cadillacs created by members of the Ant Farm art collective – Kelley’s “readymade” highlights the visual incongruity of the familiar.
That is, essentially, the operating dynamic here: taking something familiar and making it strange, either through context, commentary, or co-optation. Something as simple as a #2 pencil – a tool for artistic creation – becomes art itself when it sticks out of the wall at a casual angle, as in “Untitled #2 (Pencil)” d ‘Alex Mayer.
Perhaps the brightest piece of the show is “#Found” by Mazin Abdelhameid. It’s simply an empty white pedestal below the titular hashtag displayed on the wall. Visitors are encouraged to place their own ready-made object on the pedestal and photograph it, tagging the image with “#found” and uploading it to photo-sharing sites like Instagram.
Abdelhameid’s message is clear, and still resonates after Duchamp first articulated it a century ago: you go to museums to look for art, but you can also find it hidden in your pocket. or your purse.
The story behind the work
Upstairs in the “[email protected]” lounge is another interesting exhibit. “Memorial Modeling” presents sculptural installations by two contemporary Russian artists: Peter Belyi and Petr Shvetsov.
Their work shares a theme of destruction, with Belyi’s “Red Meteorite” evoking a building that has been devastated by a large piece of space junk and Shvetsov’s “Fragile Balance” evoking the collapse of a large concrete structure. (It looks a bit like inside a subway station, in the middle of an earthquake.)
Both artists are 43 and came of age during the economic and political turmoil known as perestroika, the reform movement that many believe led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The influence of upheaval is strongly felt in their work.
Belyi says he is inherently drawn to the “romance” of ruins and broken things. In fact, says the artist, his visit to the Bethesda quarry where he obtained the nearly 400-pound stone at the centerpiece of “Meteorite” was more inspiring than a trip to the National Gallery of Art.
“Memorial Modeling” is also on view until October 19.
Until October 19 at the American University Museum in
Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.