D.C’s New School is in Session

by Editorial

WL: What does it mean to be an artist in Washington?

Colby Caldwell: Politics will always be top dog here, (though the city itself seems impervious to it) and most everything else continues to percolate in its own little universe. D.C. does have a fairly rich history culturally and musically – think of [’80s punk record label] Dischord, the (old) Washington Project for the Arts. When I first got here, the gallery scene was still primarily based in and around Dupont Circle.  Ewing, Jones Troyer, Tartt, and Middendorf were the more prominent spaces.  Now it has pockets on 14th, Florida, 7th, Dupont, and Mt. Rainer, as well as others.

As the city is preoccupied with politics and the Redskins, artists are left to their own devices for the most part, which allows folks to make their mistakes. Trial and error can take place without the wilting scrutiny that comes with LA and NYC zip codes. You can make your work at your own speed, not necessarily the speed of the market.

James Huckenpahler: There’s less money floating around for the arts than NYC or LA, though that could change in the next 10-15 years. It’s conceivable that the children of the NoVA tech crowd – and their trust funds – will show up intending to use their liberal arts educations to infuse the arts scene. The flip side is that it’s cheaper to get by as a young artist in D.C. than NYC. Why live there when you can catch a bus up? That’s what most of the collectors do. D.C. is, relatively speaking, an artificial city – most of the wealth and education that is here comes and goes with administrations. And most people associated with administrations at any level – policy makers, lobbyists, even non-prof watchdogs – can’t afford to be associated with ideas and expressions that challenge the political and cultural status quo. Could you image a Kara Walker installation in the White House? The Tony and Heather Podestas of D.C. are few and far between. If you want to make art that is politically aware, this is a good place to do research, and generally check the pulse of the prevailing powers. I’ve heard that D.C. has the most literate population in the US. That has definitely impacted the intellectual climate in the art scene – there’s been much more conceptually challenging work in the last ten years: the continued success of Martin Irvine [of Irvine Contemporary] is proof of that, but everyone is putting together smarter shows as a general rule.

Lisa Marie Thalhammer: When I landed in D.C. three years ago, I saw opportunity in what seemed like a small but strong art scene.  The existence of approachable non-profit visual art exhibition spaces, like Transformer, really sold me on the city. Also, finding financial support from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and local D.C. collectors has nurtured my studio practice here in the District.

JH: I can remember (even fairly recently) the previous generation of artists complaining about lack of community. But that hasn’t been my experience at all. In the early ’00s there were collectives like Decatur Blue and Signal 66. I was with Fusebox from its conception until they closed, and though it was a commercial gallery, it was definitely a team effort – from defining the mission to mopping the floors on opening day, we all pitched in, even artists that weren’t represented. In general, artists, collectors and gallerists are really raising the bar locally. In response, local museums are paying more attention and creating more opportunities for D.C. artists. That, in turn, makes D.C. artists more visible nationally and internationally.

Holly Bass: I like the idea of being part of a school or group. And I definitely feel like there’s some kind of zeitgeist happening here and now that’s similar to the punk movement or the early ’80s art scene at dcspace. There’s a lack of pretension in D.C. that’s really refreshing. I can’t really speak about life in LA, but D.C. offers a better quality of life than NY. I live in a beautiful, centrally located apartment and I’m not always having to worry about how my rent will be paid. I know that’s not the case for everyone, especially with housing in the past two or three years, but I do think it’s possible to live well in DC on a modest salary. And of course all of the free culture and being in such an international center doesn’t hurt either.

JH: The real estate boom here is also a big opportunity for artists. More people have the luxury to own art – not just financial luxury, but spatial luxury. People actually have the room to surround themselves with sensual experiences. Not just small pieces, but ones with scale and scope. The urban architecture from the 1920s through the mid-90s didn’t really allow for that. I’m trying to think of a post-1920 building in town with 12-foot ceilings – few, if any, existed prior to 1995. Now look at 14th and P.

WL: When did you know you would be an artist?

JH: The real turning point for me, was in the summer of ’85, when I read an interview with Brian Eno that introduced me to John Cage, Steve Riech and the notion of working procedurally.

LMT: I attended a pre-college program at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 16 and was exposed to contemporary art for the first time. Art became my obsession.

HB: I’ve been writing and performing since childhood. And I’ve had tremendous encouragement from family, teachers and community, the whole way along. I don’t think I ever doubted that I would create art. The question was whether I would do it professionally, meaning try to make money from it. I know a lot of working artists who have name recognition in certain circles, but still aren’t “household names” and may never be. People get too hung up on the fame=money thing and the starving artist thing. It’s a bit absurd. Art is a profession, just like medicine or law. There are rich plastic surgeons out there and low-income community doctors. I never say I’m a starving artist, or a struggling artist. I’m working class.

CC: In my “Europe between the Wars” class at Appalachian State, my papers quickly became filled with more photographs than words. The professor suggested I might look into a different field of work. I transferred to the Corcoran in 1987, and Kathleen Ewing gave me my first show in 1988.  But it was my first experience meeting the photographer Joe Mills as a guest artist in my 2nd year photography class that I got some sense of another way to live my life.  Or, at least, that alternatives existed.

WL: Is art an interaction between the viewer and the artist?

JH: I absolutely think so. If you make art for yourself, it’s therapy. Nothing wrong with that, but in my mind, art is, by definition, meant to be seen. When people look at a work of art, they add layers of interpretation to a piece that accumulate over time, making it more valuable. Think of a piece like the Mona Lisa; it’s been viewed, reproduced a million times in a million contexts, and written about almost as much. It’s been praised, questioned, parodied, copied, referenced and transformed. All of those things have added both cultural – and monetary – value.

LMT: The images artists make live outside them and take on a larger life.  As viewers, we all have our own subjectivity and set of experiences that we bring to a work of art.

CC: Art is a sublime dialogue that occurs when you decide to tune in. But it does need a viewer to continue to be relevant.

HB: I do multidisciplinary performance, so basically I am my work. I’m physically present in the interaction between audience and art. I always have a concept in mind when I’m working. For instance, with my current pieces “(Uppity Negroes on) Parade” and “Pay Purview,” I’m very focused on booties and the representation of black women in popular media. Before that, I did a solo show, “Diary of a Baby Diva,” that was very personal but also had a lot of comedy. Depending on the piece, I’m thinking about making the audience laugh, or on the physical and emotional sensations that come up in performance. The audience plays a major role in my work.

WL: How does one create anything unique nowadays?

JH: I’m conscious of my influences; I evaluate my own work by questioning when I’ve extended my influences, not just copied them. Someone [maybe Hans Ulrich Obrist?] asked Gerhard Richter if painting was dead, and he responded to effect that painting is not dead just like sex is not dead. Originality and significance are not the same thing.

LMT: Everything is about influence. You cannot escape it. Pure originality does not exist.

CC: By continuing to be artists when they’re old.

HB: I don’t worry about originality too much. Everything these days seems to be about nostalgia and referencing the past-even in popular media. We’ve already got “I Love the ’90s” and we haven’t even gotten through the ’00s yet. I think it’s best to be ballsy and confident about your work. I stand by what I make. And I’m prepared to frame it in different ways for different audiences, because ultimately this idea of distinguishing oneself is more about the art market than about the creative process, isn’t it?

WL: How did you get your start?

JH: I’ve been really blessed with great teachers from grade school right up to the present. Obviously my parents: as a kid they did everything they could to broaden my horizons, including among other things, art classes. As a teenager, William Willis [he’s a painter, at Hemphill also] was a huge influence and support. I’d have to say Willliam Newman [painter, at Adamson] is probably my artistic ‘dad.’ Our work couldn’t be more different, but our conversation about art goes back more than 20 years. In terms of meeting people in the D.C. scene, Ken Ashton [photographer, Civilian Fine Arts]. Most people appreciate Ken for all of the technical help he brings to the scene, but few realize how good his eye is  or how sharp his intellect is.

HB: I think in the 2-D art world it’s a little different, in that someone usually has to give you your first show or represent you, but I’ve been producing my work independently for ten years now. The world of dance-theater and performance is very do-it-yourself.

CC: If start means first show, that would be Kathleen Ewing.  But I would suggest it was a combination of folks, both mentors and peers.

JH: Go to all the right parties. Really. In the marketplace: hire a PR firm. In the studio: if you can make work that opens lots of possibilities for interpretation then you’re on the right track. That applies across the board – young or old.

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