In with the “New”

Upon entrance to the first room of the exhibition the “48th Corcoran Biennial: Closer to Home,” my immediate reaction was to cringe. This was then followed by the impulse to run across The Ellipse, down Constitution Avenue and into the safety of the National Gallery.

Instead, I confronted the images at hand. Right in front of me: a sculpture of a glitzy preacher with a pumpkin-head (pierced ears and all). To my left and right: gynormous nylon balloon cages filled with multiple-eyed balloon monsters. On the surrounding walls of the rotunda: felt crows.

While I refuse to dance circles around the age-old argument of what is and isn’t “art,” I am happy to enter the dialogue the installation artist Reverend Ethan Acres has created. Can ministry, performance and contemporary art be its own holy trinity?

This was one of many questions I had while viewing the Biennial, an annual exhibition held at the Corcoran for the past 90 years. In the Biennial’s attempt to showcase the major trends in American art, emphasis was placed on contemporary art created with traditional media (such as wood, canvas and string). It also featured predominantly D.C.-based artists-an homage to the Corcoran’s heritage as the first art museum in the District.

As I made my way up the stairs and into the remainder of the exhibition, I was not quite sure what to expect. Would the next room I walk in have creepy felt birds staring at me? Thankfully, I was almost comforted to see paper towels, lined up on a wooden shelf. As I came closer to Kathryn Spence’s “Papertowels” (2004), I was shocked to find thread carefully embroidered in complex patterns on the paper’s surface. I was equally excited to see the often-3-D architectural sketches of “perches” by Austin Thomas.

After perusing the exhibit, I was impressed by the variety of featured artists’ work. In a time when there is such an abundance of art, it seems that most traditional shows are classified within such specific genres that it is difficult to distinguish one artist from the next. Therein lies the beauty of contemporary art; while the viewer may find similar themes (for example, in this exhibit domesticity and quotidian life reverberate throughout), the process and resulting work from artist to artist is completely different. The Corcoran has put together an exhibition that reminds the viewer of art’s past, present and future.

This lofty task of “reinventing the wheel” is illustrated with the photography of John Lehr. In a display of large prints, Lehr captures everyday images of everything we seem to ignore on a daily basis. However, by shooting from disarming and peculiar vantage points, the viewer must suddenly confront the urban landscape while simultaneously reconcile its transformation from the “everyday” to a form of “fine art.” In “Untitled, 2004,” the viewer sees a large billboard featuring Tiger Woods, snuggled up closely to a broken-down advertisement for “Luis’s Pastry Shop.” This juxtaposition of old with new, placed within a calculated composition, seems to be a metaphor for the entire Biennial, as well as the idea that the concept of “new” has no meaning without being placed in the context of “old.” Not to mention the word “balloon” having no context without the image of the “Fall of Babylon” – or so Reverend Acres claims.

The Corcoran Biennial will remain at the museum until June 27. Admission is $3 for students with ID, and the main entrance is at 500 17th St. N.W.

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