Loud Marriage


Sculptures by Local, Latin Artists Scream Out for Engagement

Engagement has been the latest catchphrase in Washington lately, but it’s not just presidents and politicos reaching out for more recognition. Washington’s treasure-trove of cultural institutions — from the city’s many art museums to its historic monuments and buildings — also regularly try to “engage” residents, especially those who may become complacent as time ticks by, forgetting to raise their heads and take in the culture all around them.

A multimedia sculpture exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas, on the grounds of the Organization of American States (OAS), aims to turn heads by marrying two important milestones in the city’s local and international arts community. “Bilateral Engagement” celebrates 25 years of the Washington Sculptors Group (WSG), in conjunction with the 2010 centennial of the OAS’s historic headquarters.

The show examines the historical sweep of WSG member work over the past 25 years — from the radical social changes of the 1960s to today — while also connecting it with select pieces from the Art Museum of the Americas that offer a parallel commentary on Latin American political and artistic trends.

It makes for an interesting conversation — and perhaps what’s most striking about this “exchange” are the materials that the artists use to voice their messages. These range from stone, wood and organic earth to industrial steel and recycled objects like bottle corks, discarded flip flops and severed cables.

In Dominican artist Tony Capellan’s work “Mar Caribe,” the artist channels the often difficult experiences of Latin American immigration through hundreds of well-used blue and green flip flops with barbed wire thongs that span an entire wall of one gallery room. The ebbing and flowing lines of ocean water created by the beach footwear reminds us of the many vicious obstacles involved with emigrating.

Similarly, “Back and Forth,” a 15-foot banner by Maria Barbosa — a local WSG member artist originally from Brazil — brings to mind the fluid borders between the United States and the Latin world. The embellished aerial map of the border is marked with miniscule footprints reminiscent of those painted in ancient Mesoamerican codices and speaks to the ongoing struggles of Latin migration.

Meanwhile, Kristen Campbell’s “Mangrove,” a steel-and-wire-wrapped creation that resembles a huge spider-like web of mangled tree roots, uses line as freeform sculptural device, hinting at the powerful forces of nature with its menacing appendages.

Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto takes a cleaner, minimalist approach with “Escritura Hurtado (Hurtado Writing),” which elegantly illustrates the power of geometric abstraction using basic black-and-white stripes, fronted by wire and nylon curving cords. The effect is both simplistic and sleek — mirroring in many ways Joanne Kent’s Zen-like twin circular reliefs “Isis Revisited” and “Hard Rain.”

American sculptor and WSG member Gale Jamieson uses mixed media and steel pins to convey a more multi-textured and layered effect — literally — by attaching the steel pins to an old-fashioned dress form, juxtaposing the garment’s traditional dress patterns with steel-tipped accents that channel an oddly cold-hearted aggression through the pins’ visibly sharp points.

The artists’ clever use of materials also suggests a strong reverence for the environment, which forms the basis of many pieces. Letting no material go to waste is recycling-conscientious Brian Reed, who uses thick, six-foot branches of natural wood and recycled materials for pieces like “Beer Bottle Cap Minkisi,” which is covered with hundreds of colorful beer bottle caps, wine and champagne bottle corks and caviar jar caps. Minkisi objects are thought to contain spiritual powers and are commonly used in healing rituals in the Congo Basin of Central Africa, though minkisi vessels and bundles are also found in Cuba via African influence. A number of Reed’s minkisi pieces are included in the exhibit, some incorporating such diverse materials as seashells, nails, screws, juice caps and bells. One whimsical piece enlists basic arts and crafts supplies, including pastel-colored cotton balls, googly eyes and ladybug cutouts.

Other works turn to more high-tech resources to make their point. In “2 states/4 dimensions,” Renee Butler builds “resonant environments” using sound, visuals and mirrors to evoke the viewer’s senses. Video flashes images of raging lava, flowing waterfalls, rising steam and shifting icebergs. Though beautiful to watch, the viewer is left with an uneasy feeling about the unpredictability and precariousness of the world’s ecosystems.

Likewise, American artist Joel D’Orazio uses a simple, seemingly benign structure to convey deeper emotions. His “Dreadlock Chair,” an old wooden chair with cables sprouting through its back, evokes the claustrophobia of being tied down by technology and modern-day responsibilities.

In a city full of talking heads, these materials talk to us in a way that drowns out the usual Washington rancor, whether the conversation has to do with the pitfalls of technology or environmental sustainability. These sculptures scream out for engagement with their quiet power, and thankfully, the Art Museum of the Americas was listening and heeded their call.

About the Author

Rima Assaker is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.