DC’s Sprawling, Inclusive Artist-Run Spectacle by Brendan L. Smith

When I moved to D.C. from the spellbinding landscapes of Santa Fe more than a decade ago, I suddenly stopped making art.

I was living in a small studio apartment overlooking Malcolm X Park, and a new job was consuming my time and energy. I lost touch with my creative spirit in a city known for soul-crushing politics and hyperactive Type A workaholics. The local artist community also didn’t really feel like a community to me; it had no arts district, limited studio space, and artists toiling away in obscurity without any meaningful connections to each other.

Then Artomatic rolled back into town, and I began creating art again because I wanted to be part of the action.

Since 1999, Artomatic has transformed vacant buildings into gigantic pop-up art spaces featuring hundreds of artists and performers. Run by artists and volunteers, Artomatic welcomes all so anyone can claim a space on a first-come first-served basis. It’s a refreshing change in a city with few galleries that feature emerging artists and a handful of non-profit art spaces that can show only a small fraction of the talent out there.

The latest installment of Artomatic, which will be on view until May 6, fills seven floors of a massive office building in Crystal City, Va., just across the Potomac River from D.C. and across the street from a 380,000-square foot office building that housed Artomatic in 2012. As D.C. has undergone a wave of gentrification, Artomatic moved further afield to Hyattsville in 2015 and Potomac in 2016.

Like any unjuried show, the artwork in Artomatic is all over the map both in artistic talent and media, including painting, photography, sculpture, mixed media, and site-specific installations. Participants must pay an entry fee and complete several four-hour volunteer shifts, which provides an opportunity for artists to meet other local artists. The artists also expend time and energy to patch, paint, or transform the walls in their spaces where several artists may be featured in the same room.

The snooty art critic at the Washington Post, along with many arts publications, ignore Artomatic because it is unjuried and exists outside the artificially constructed confines of the “art world,” where the talent of artists is subsumed by the whims of gallery owners, rich collectors, museum officials, and art critics. But there is real danger in subscribing to a world that is constantly curated by others. If you only see artwork in museums, pick movies by critic ratings, choose restaurants with Yelp, and watch TV shows from Facebook friend recommendations, then you’ll never know what else is out there, including those rough gems hidden in the dirt.

Artomatic features both professional and amateur artists and further blurs that fuzzy line dividing them. Is an incredible artist who hasn’t made any sales an amateur? Then Van Gogh falls in that category even though his work now sells for millions. If a terrible artist gains fame and fortune through buzz or luck or the pack mentality of wealthy collectors, then is he a professional? Damien Hirst and others fall squarely in that category.

I showed a diverse range of artwork in four Artomatics from 2007 to 2012. I volunteered as a gallery manager during my shifts, overseeing dozens of volunteers and hoping that nothing catastrophic would happen on my watch. I haven’t participated in more recent Artomatics because of the considerable time commitment and my involvement with the Sparkplug Collective, but Artomatic still inspires me for its sense of inclusion and community and the window it offers into a deep well of hidden artistic talent.

Faced with hundreds of artists spread across seven floors, Artomatic can be a daunting experience so it helps to pace yourself and plan more than one visit. I’ve included some of my favorites (including their space number) in no particular order from my meandering route through the building. But don’t let an arts writer decide your path. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure pursuit with a wealth of surprises winding through a bewildering maze of doorways.

W.L. Pierce (7623)

It would be easy to miss Pierce’s closet-sized room, but his unique installation combines photography and engineering in 36 stacked wooden boxes with circular glass windows resembling portholes. Inside each box is a backlit image that appears to bulge toward the viewer. A vacant store inhabited by mannequins, a lightning storm, or bored people staring at a bored monkey trapped inside a glass-lined cage. There’s a voyeuristic element of bending down to peer through a peephole into these random worlds ranging from the mundane to the sublime. I also felt a building sense of anticipation and curiosity about what the next box would hold.

Michele Banks (5420)

In The Arctic Bride, Banks created a captivating installation featuring a headless female mannequin wearing a flowing white veil and lace-lined wedding dress that drops to a tangled web of tattered black cloth that spreads across the floor like a menacing fungus. A framed invitation invites guests to the marriage of Ice and Carbon at the Greenland Ice Sheet. The understated commentary on climate change is powerful precisely because it isn’t polemic, resisting the urge to shout at climate change deniers, including (Not My) President Drumpf, despite the almost overwhelming urge to do so.

Drumpf Bashing (All over)  

But sometimes shouting can be fun or cathartic even if artists are preaching to the choir about Drumpf and his hate-fueled policies. I couldn’t list all of the anti-Drumpf artwork scattered across seven floors. Some of the work, including an ass-faced Drumpf, is very predictable, but others caught my eye with their humor or creativity. A sculpture called Puti’s Most Precious Doll features a large Russian nesting doll with a painting of Drumpf topped by a weird Gollum-like creature. The Resistance Collection by Ricardo Leon includes humorous prints of wide-eyed smiling cartoon figures with slogans such as “Super Callous Fascist Extra Braggadocious” or “Make America Love Again.”

Kristina King (8623)

Handmade paper is often associated with handmade journals rather than fine art, but King reveals the true potential of paper as a medium. Her large paper pieces, some riddled with holes, feel otherworldly and sculptural with their subtle bends and ragged edges. The work feels organic and elemental both in texture and form, resembling a topographic map of a mountain range with its swirling blacks and browns or a satellite image of the moon. The fragility of the paper itself also stretches a cord of tension, reminiscent of our tenuous grasp on nature and our own mortality.

Sarah Chittenden (5626)

Many of the installations suffer from their surroundings, including the punishing fluorescent lighting that is the soul-sucking bane of offices worldwide. In LIGHTscaping, Chittenden creates her own magical environment lit only by her whimsical lamps, lanterns, and light boxes that cast a rainbow of color from lightbulbs painted with swirling colors. The room feels warm and inviting with a bench offering a respite from the workaday world.

Lewis Francis (3310)

In his Urban Spelunking photo series, Francis explores abandoned buildings and decaying urban environments that have been ravaged by time and our own neglect. In his extensive travels to sometimes secret locations, Francis conveys the pervasive timelessness and shabby grandeur of giant rusted pipes in an abandoned Pennsylvania furnace or the peeling paint in a decrepit trolley that was left in the dust on the path of progress. Vintage coats still hang on the wall in an abandoned farmhouse even though the owners have disappeared, leaving behind only ghostly remnants of their lives. Francis uses a process that infuses ink onto coated aluminum sheets, creating a shimmering metallic sheen that complements the industrial scenes in his work.

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Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist and mixed-media artist in Washington, D.C.

Artomatic will be on view through May 6 at 1800 S. Bell Street, Crystal City, Va.