Subtle attention-seekers without strings

By Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post

Delusions of Grandeur seems about right for the name of an artists’ collective showing in a hole in the wall in Brentwood.

Located on the second floor of the Gateway Arts Center, the 39th Street Gallery is a 450-square-foot box that has been known to put on pretty cool little shows, including a recent micro-retrospective of the great D.C. painter Manon Cleary, who died last year. But the National Gallery of Art it is not.

Still, who knows where the five artists who make up Delusions of Grandeur will be showing 40 years from now? That is sort of the point.

The exhibition, “No Strings Attached,” features a mere two artworks by each of the five artists (with the exception of Wesley Clark, whose contribution is a handsome installation of 50 plywood boxes, scored with a kind of crudely beautiful, graffiti-like calligraphy). The small sampling is enough to get a sense of the individual artists, whose diverse styles -- true to the show’s name -- have little to do with one another.

Among the most arresting pieces are two portraits by Jamea Richmond-Edwards. Virtually unreproducible in photographs, the drawings depict the faces of two black women. The manner in which they’re made -- mostly dark ink, chalk pastel and colored pencil on dark black boards -- render their subjects all but invisible, unless one stands in just the right place, with the gallery lights hitting the surface just so.

It’s an apt metaphor for the theme of visibility that Richmond-Edwards’s works seem to traffic in. The larger show takes on that theme, too. The young artists featured in “No Strings Attached” are African American. The question of race, in the context of the art establishment, seems to percolate just below the show’s surface.

Take Stanley Squirewell’s digital prints. In each, a naked black man can be seen posing, almost hiding, behind works of modernist geometric abstraction. The implication -- that the African American artist has a fraught, and perhaps contentious, engagement with the art canon -- is clear.

That theme is echoed in the work of Shaunte Gates, whose surrealistic collage “Bull’s Eye” features a gun-toting black youth against a dreamlike landscape populated by classical statuary.

Like Clark’s scarified wooden cubes, the work of Amber Robles-Gordon doesn’t seem particularly concerned with race. Her two assemblages of dangling ribbon and brightly colored string suggest an interest in gender over skin color. They’re tied -- albeit loosely -- to the legacy of the Washington Color School, though in a medium often associated with the so-called women’s work of sewing.

The five artists here have few delusions. Their work is clear-eyed, but so is their determination to be taken notice of. http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/exhibits/no-strings-attached,1245339/critic-review.html