Inside D.C. entertainment

'Catalyst: 35 Years of Washington Project for the Arts': A first look

November 10, 2010 - 08:00 AM
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Nancy Rubens, 'Worlds Apart,' 1982. (Photo: Mark Gulezian)

Catalyst is a museum show of Washington artists, in a city in which Washington artists aren't often shown in museums.

"Washington Artists have a unique situation," says curator J.W. Mahoney. "The museums do not validate local art, except on a piece-by-piece basis. That's too bad."

But where the museums were lacking, the Washington Project for the Arts stepped in. The organization was founded 35 years ago to support and show local artists, and Catalyst at the Katzen is a look back through the years, which have been marked with success and controversy.

"Thirty-five years is when a person is officially an adult," says Mahoney. " I would say that the Washington scene has a lot of maturity."

Mahoney intended the show not as a historical document, but rather, as a contemporary look at artists whose careers have been fostered by their WPA affiliation, and who continue to make art today. The show includes artists who have their work in major museum collections, like Sam Gilliam and William Christenberry, as well as burgeoning artists who continue to make a name for themselves in D.C., like Erick Jackson and Kelly Towles. But the work was all selected to demonstrate that something different happens here.

"Washington deserves a reputation as being an alternative city," says Mahoney.

Here's a first glimpse at some historical works in the show:

When photographer Jim Hubbard was documenting the lives of he homeless for UPI in 1989, when he handed his camera to a child, who enthusiastically snapped away. He realized that teaching photography to homeless children could make a difference, and distributed cameras. One child in a neighborhood stricken by gunfire declared that he was "shooting back," and the title stuck, with those images comprising a 1990 WPA exhibit of the same name. Shooting back brought more than 10,000 people into the gallery, and was featured in Life magazine and on Oprah. The organization has since expanded to other at-risk youths.

shooting back
Columbia Thomas, 'Showing Off,' from the exhibition Shooting Back: Photography By and About the Homeless, 1990

Perhaps the biggest moment in the WPA's history was the Robert Mapplethorpe show of 1989, which the WPA took off of the Corcoran's hands when it was canceled, due to controversy. Mapplethorpe's photos of homosexuality were deemed obscene by Sen. Jesse Helms, and he threatened to cut federal funding to the museum. When the Corcoran backed down, the WPA protested the decision, and stepped up to take the show. Mahoney said that Andrea Pollan, now of Curator's Office, had the subversive idea to project images from the show on the outside of the Corcoran on the night it was slated to open. Attendance for the show reached nearly 49,000. According to the Catalyst catalogue, program director Phillip Brookman quipped, "We wouldn't normally show [Mapplethorpe's] work. It's too safe, too well-known."

Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Self Portrait,' 1988. Gelatin silver print.

PostSecret is known the world over for its anonymous revelations about human nature. The WPA was the first to show Frank Warren's work, which has continued in multiple books and his blog. The anonymous secrets (Recent example: "I haven't come out because I'm afraid my gay friends won't find me attractive.") intrigued a crowd of more than 15,000. Warren has installed a mailbox in the Katzen, and there are postcards for Catalyst visitors to submit with their own secrets.

A visitor studies one of the thousands of postcards displayed as part of the PostSecret exhibition, 2005.

And then there's "The Last Washington Painting," by Alan Sonneman. As I wrote in a July cover story for City Paper, this painting had been lost for more than 30 years. Sonneman contacted me to help him find it. My search, aided by art mover Bill Hill and artist Lisa Brotman, whose work also hangs in Catalyst, was a hunt through a vast network of Washington collectors and artists, and the painting nearly didn't make it to the show. It was found in a rather surprising place, and I was excited to see it in person for the first time. This week, Sonneman will see his work — which has become emblematic of this show - for the first time in 30 years. I'll be sharing his thoughts later this week.

last washington painting
Alan Sonneman, 'The Last Washington Painting (Premonitions of the Corporate Wars), 1980. Oil on canvas.
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