Jun 30, 2004: The Post, Pandas as Public Art


WASHINGTON, DC—During the past month a debate has been simmering in the Nation’s Capitol about the nature of public art. That the question debated involves Eastern Market is not surprising to anyone familiar with the dozens of artists who exhibit there.

Washington Post Art Critic Blake Gopnik started the ruckus in a Sunday, May 30 critique of “PandaMania,” a public art project sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH).

In short, Gopnik panned the pandas, 150 street sculptures colored by artists chosen by the commission for placement on city streets. He called them “coloring-book art,” which reminded him of “none of the kinds of things I’ve been asked to look at in art galleries and museums across the country, or around the world.” He wrote, “On the long roster of panda decorators, there wasn’t anyone whom the city’s art aficionados would be likely to count as a top local talent.”

The review produced an apparent flurry of letters, some of which were dutifully printed by the Post in the arts section the next Sunday. Among these was one from Marsha Stein, an Eastern Market artist exhibitor who personally sells her work at the market most weekends and has been featured in shows at the nonprofit Market 5 Gallery. Stein was a painter of one of the pandas that the Post used to illustrate the Gopnik piece.

The Marsha Stein Challenge:
In her letter, Stein issued a challenge to Gopnik. “Let’s change the format,” she wrote. “Say that we take a four-foot cube of the same material as the pandas. Mr. Gopnik you find four artists to paint it. I’ll team up with three other artists from Eastern Market. We’ll be the grass-roots team. Your artists can be the ‘top local talent.’

“Of course we’ll need to pay the artists and get the blocks formed,” Stein continued. “Maybe we can come up with two benefactors, one for each team. Then let’s put it to a public vote…all in good fun,” she concluded.

So far neither Gopnik nor the Post has replied directly to Stein about the proposal.

The easternmarket.net response:
I, for one, like the idea. As the undercapitalized owner of easternmarket.net and manager of The Flea Market at Eastern Market on Sundays, I’ll back the grass-roots team. Herein I am committing a donation of $750, a major piece of cash flow, to the challenge. Certainly the mighty Washington Post can fund the balance of the project from corporate change.

I endorse the challenge because I, too, have been dismayed for many years that Post art critics have ignored Eastern Market artists.

The oversight has been particularly curious, because other sections of the Post often report about such artists. Here are two recent examples:

On May 27, the Home section featured Bridget Belkacemi, an artist who makes whimsical sculpture out of gourds. Granted that gourds, as the pandas or the proposed cube, are “not exactly a blank canvas,” as Gopnik complained, “that leaves much room for profound artistic thought,” seems to be overlooked by the other Post writer, who found Belkacemi on a Sunday, on one of the less than two dozen days she had shown her work at the flea market.

Presidential Portraits by Simmie Knox:
On June 15, the Front Page reported on the unveiling of the separate Presidential Portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton, both by Simmie Knox. On June 16, the Style section featured Knox in a story, “A Painter Draws Attention at Last.” The Style writer noted, “He and his wife, Roberta, and their kids, Zach and Amelia, would come to Eastern Market on the weekends” to sell.

If my memory is correct, there were some weekends when all four of them had work for sale. On one of those weekends I agreed to trade a Victorian love seat to Simmie for a painting. He offered to do a portrait of my family, but I chose, instead, a small still life. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was a mistake since the Style writer reports his portraits now bring as much as my annual income in most years.

The feature failed to mention the many solo and group shows in which Knox participated at Market 5 Gallery, which for many years was subsidized by the DCCAH, the chief recipient of the Gopnik rant.

Alternatives to the Gallery System:
But more to the point of this essay, counter pointing Gopnik’s perspective, is that Eastern Market, as an arts venue, unlike the private galleries and public museums he champions, is not elitist and still manages to attract world class artists. This is attested to by many in the crowds (larger than most of the non-National Mall establishment art venues) that flock to the market on weekends and buy the work.

Perhaps Gopnik and the establishment galleries, most of whom require exclusive representation contracts for their artists, would like to keep it a secret that many good artists actually choose to avoid the middle man. By doing so, the work can be sold directly and at affordable prices. The customers appreciate and know the difference even if the critic does not.

Such self-representation may indeed be the choice of the three artists, Stevens Jay Carter, Michael Berman and Daniel Kessler, who have agreed to participate with Stein in the cube challenge.

Carter’s work, which he and the other two artists sell from outdoor stalls, can also be found indoors right now, through July 17, at Citibank in the Metropolitan Square Financial Center, 1400 G Street NW.

Carter and Berman, who are cofounders of Project BRASAS, often organize other shows. One is up right now through July 13 as part of The Rock Creek Festival. “Crossing Boundaries, Artwork from 3 Continents,” can be found at St. Paul’s Church Rock Creek Parish Exhibition & Sculptural Garden, Rock Creek Church Rd. and Webster Street, NW. A public reception for the invitational exhibition is 6 – 9 p.m., Thursday, July 1. For more information on both shows call Carol Swainson of the project at 202-588-1992.

Other Market News:
The work of all three of Stein’s compatriot artists can also be found now at Commerce Street Gallery, 204 Commerce Street in Occoquan, a Virginia town known for hosting arts and crafts fairs. John and Gwyneth Goudemond, who for several seasons operated as African Connexion in an outdoor stall near the artists, purchased the 15-year old gallery in December 2002.

The Goudemonds currently have a 500 square foot space, which they think would be perfect for an antique furniture gallery or artists’ studio, available in their building. For information call 703-491-9020 and ask for John, who has been recovering from knee and hip replacement surgeries and hopes to return to Eastern Market in the Fall.

While on the subjects of galleries, we should also belatedly mention, that Renee Altman, a member of Eastern Market Pottery (in the second floor Center Hall of Eastern Market reached by stairs at the rear of the building) who sold her work outdoors primarily on Saturdays, established The Clay Queen Pottery, 2303 Mount Vernon Ave., in the trendy DelRay area of Alexandria in May 2002. The number there is 703-549-7775.

Finally, Margaret Barnes, a jeweler who sells both weekend days at the market, surprised us recently with an invitation to an opening of a solo show, “Shades of Human Nature,” of her photographs at the Maryland Federation of Art Circle Gallery in Annapolis. We didn’t even know she worked in the medium and have urged her to bring some of that work to the market too.

Then she could also join some of the world-class contemporary photographers, not to slight her fellow world-class craftspeople like, for instance, Andrea Haffner, who last year was accepted into the prestigious Smithsonian annual show and sale.

Really, Gopnik, by defining important art by the venue in which it is presented, doesn’t know how much great stuff he’s missing.