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Face in the Crowd

Dozens Of Artists Vie For Your Eye In The Solid But Sprawling Show At Gallery Four

JENGA: Foon Sham's "Squeeze" is just one of 55 pieces in I Really Want To See. . . .

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 5/11/2005

Art collectors make great patrons, but as curators they can not always be trusted. If you’ve ever been lured into the living room of an art-world habitué, you’re likely familiar with the peculiar, saturating effect of a homemade salon—lots of very good work hung chockablock with lots of other very good work that has nothing to do with it. For sure, knowing what they like is all the focus collectors need, and evidence of this is as close as I really want to see . . ., the new collector-curated show on view at Gallery Four.

Numbering some 55 pieces by 28 artists, I really want is amassed from the holdings of Washington, D.C., collector Joan Weber and her art-patron friends, and also includes new work by the collected artists, all of which means that the typically random tone of an omnibus show is increased here by an order of magnitude. Indeed, it’s only the rambling industrial spaces of Gallery Four itself, all broad and sprawling and done up in Westinghouse white, that keep the display from taking on the showily cluttered feel of acquisitive chic.

The guiding principle in assembling this exhibit, Weber writes in her curator’s notes, was “the strength of color or line or concept of the work—none of the work is retiring.” With only this as their reason for being shown together, then, it’s up to the pieces themselves to wriggle free of the crush, to harness the energy of narrative, or method, or material, to build the kind of escape velocity that sets a piece apart.

Each of the exhibit’s eight rooms is dominated by one or two signal works, but the most impressive is not always the biggest. In the opening section, for instance, among some contrived assemblages and a meandering attempt at expressionist painting that runs some 27 feet long, Laura Amussen’s latest untitled installation quietly greets visitors with low-profile, monochrome poise. It’s a suite of 20 earthen cubes arranged in rows on the floor—deep brown, loamy-looking blocks composed of soil, foam, and gel, a curious blend of the natural and the not. Sculpted into the center of each, however, is a conspicuously consistent hole, clean-cut and narrowing in tiers, as if having been machined. Amussen has long been a student of the organic, the synthetic, and the violations that occur when they collide, and this is among her more subtle inquiries into the question.

Foon Sham’s “Squeeze” in the next room, by contrast, clearly asks for all the attention it gets. From hundreds of long, thin blocks of pale hardwood, Sham has constructed a nine-foot tower of astute grace and precarious power. From the rear, it resembles the prow of a ship, its sides curving together to meet in a neat, straight seam; from the front, it looks more like a dying tree, a hollow opening up at its base like the cavity that forms when a trunk starts to rot. Looming tall and looking cobbled together, it is Serra-like in its tenuous balance, as well as in its commanding physical presence. And certainly, it puts to shame the work that surrounds it, like Noche Christ’s two wall-mounted wood pieces—one an afterthought-encrusted cross, the other a figure of a woman in her bathtub—both looking like they were shipped straight from a gift shop in Santa Fe.

Margaret Boozer’s “Out of the Fire” draws the eye among the hodgepodge of 2-D work that follows. A seven-foot span of black stoneware, it comes off at first like a patch of framed asphalt, right down to the weathered white line that runs down its left side. But the flat ceramic seems almost venerable in its deep, aged-looking patina, and its textured contours contrast smartly with glistening streams of tar that ooze through its cracks, luscious in its pitch-black wetness. Artifacts of urban decay have seldom seemed so rich.

From there, successes in I really want to see . . . often distinguish themselves with their mastery of material, sometimes serving as their medium’s sole delegate in the show. Digital artist Brandon Morse would stand out in any collection with his computer-generated vignettes “These Things Happen,” a pair of projections that depict balmy seascapes very slowly overcome by summer storms, technically majestic and stylized smartly to prove that animation is no poor substitute for film. Thom Flynn, meanwhile, offers an eight-foot spread of pop commentary that’s not too Pop, with his untitled panels constructed from densely layered posters found on the streets, which he has piled up and then peeled away in places to create terraces and steppes of commercial imagery, combining the mass-media chaos of a subway ad kiosk with the texture of a topo map. And Richard Vosseller gets credit for getting his material to do what it shouldn’t in “The Sculpture,” a room-dominating monument made from panels of Sheetrock that have been shaped à la Charles Eames into impossible-seeming curves that bow and buckle but never break, to form a neatly sweeping composition.

That these works, and a few others like them, succeed in wheedling attention from a put-upon visitor to Gallery Four is a testament to why collectors like them—there’s not much use, after all, in collecting pieces that get lost in the mob. If Weber took it as her aim to fill a contemporary space to overflowing with works that are “not retiring,” then she can relax knowing that her job was well met. So, too, do she and her collector companions deserve credit for introducing audiences to such a wealth of local talent. But you need to keep these benefits in mind when you walk through I really want to see . . ., because in the end, good intentions are what keep it from becoming a show about nothing.

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