A delicate balancing act unfolds in the streets of Foggy Bottom, where the fourth edition of a biennial sculpture exhibition has taken up residence for the next few months. Questions of taste, scale, durability and subject have all been carefully weighed, as they often are when it comes to public art.
The works on display in “Sculpted: Histories Revealed” are not the stark monoliths of modern office courtyards or the mounted bronze generals that straddle our roundabouts. These 16 objects are quieter, stranger and more modest. At their best, you might not even know they’re art.
Example: “The house is where the hole is” by Christian Benefiel. The artist’s eerily beautiful steel and cast iron shapes, which vaguely resemble rusty buoys, lie on a tree-lined lawn, as if waiting to be picked up by the garbage truck. They subvert our expectations, which I think is one of the things that art should do.
First climb by the group Arts in Foggy Bottom in 2008, the sculpture display is scattered across the manicured lawns and gardens of private homes in the neighborhood, with the occasional piece stunning in public space, or encroaching, like ivy, on a wall. One piece, by illustrator Elizabeth Graeber, is technically not even a sculpture, but a mural. Yet Graeber’s flower-themed paint whimsy—applied to the side of a house sticking out like a rust-stained thumb in the middle of an alley—transforms the otherwise unsightly building into an object of art in itself.
The embellishment, however, barely seems the point. Or at least not the only point. While many works are undeniably pretty, a handful touch on darker themes.
Graham Caldwell’s “Watching Post,” for example, alludes to the culture of surveillance. Set on a panel, with the Watergate complex conveniently in the background, the glass artist’s installation features a star of mirrors mounted on long steel arms, like an abstract Argus. (Note: As of press time, the piece had been temporarily uninstalled so that city maintainers could repaint the pole. Nothing harmful. It should be visible again—watching watchers—soon.)
Similarly, Mariah Anne Johnson’s “Stone,” a towering mound made of reflective thermal emergency blankets, resembles a homeless man huddled against the cold.
Interestingly, both of these pieces involve reflective material. So, incidentally, does Bill Wood’s “Square Wave,” which grows, like a crop of mirrored pyramids, from a beautiful terrace garden on I Street. According to curator Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams, who selected the works, this is no accident. Getting people to notice things — not just the art, she says, but the world around them — is part of the show’s purpose. If it is necessary to send the universe back to them, so be it.
Part of the art is hidden, almost literally. Veronica Szalus’ installation of plaster and cheesecloth orbs, which seem to have sprung up, organically, amid someone’s flowers, could be a fungal outbreak – or an invasion of alien garden gnomes. Similarly, Laurel Lukaszewski’s biomorphic ceramic forms appear to have grown out of the ground, or perhaps fallen from trees.
The pieces of “Sculpted: Histories Revealed” are not always so well integrated into their environment. Five small steel sculptures by Dalya Luttwak, inspired by the sinuous shape of plant roots, were less successful than a similar, much larger piece the artist presented at the 2012 biennale. Yet it is easy to understand why she was invited back. His underground forms aim to make visible the invisible – or the neglected.
The show officially begins at the southwest corner of New Hampshire Avenue and I Street NW, where a large sheet metal piece by Joseph Fischhaber (who works as Joe Fish) acts as a sort of welcome sign. Grab a free printed map of the route while you’re there; they are also available at every stop along the way.
Evoking Washington artist Jim Sanborn’s famous series of text-based works – one of which, installed at CIA headquarters, features a coded message – Fish’s “Total Angel Moroni 2” consists of steel panels in which the artist has laser-cut hieroglyphic symbols of his own invention. They punch holes in the steel, revealing the landscape behind it.
I have no idea what the words mean, or if, in fact, they are words. Yet they deliver a clear message. It’s alluded to in the title of Fish, an allusion to the celestial being who is said to have given Joseph Smith both the Book of Mormon and the lenses to translate it: Don’t Just Look at Art—Look Through .