F. Scott Fitzgerald, group portraits and that R.E.M song. Lottery tickets, gentrification and a fast-food sign. These are among the artifacts and phenomena that define Rockville and D.C., respectively, in exhibitions that seek to reveal something of those places’ characters. The titles are telling. VisArts’s “(Come Back to) Rockville!” is a pep-squad cheer; Honfleur Gallery’s “How We Lost D.C.” is a blues lament.
The different tones are partly a matter of definition. VisArts’ show is about the area of Rockville that could be called its downtown, home to the neo-urban Town Center and the “Great Gatsby” author’s grave. Honfleur’s is about the majority African American “Chocolate City” that lasted — by U.S. Census tallies — from 1960 to 2010. Both Rockville (as a tag for the entire agglomeration between Bethesda and Gaithersburg) and the District of Columbia are bigger than the territory covered in these shows.
It would be correct but misleading to say that just two artists produced the work about Rockville. Naoko Wowsugi combined video of activity at Town Center, shot from above, with audio interviews of 10 people who live or work there. (One announces her imminent wedding — at VisArts.) Wowsugi also built a network of group photographs, beginning with an image of VisArts staffers, interns and board members. She then photographed other groups that included people in the first picture until she had a wall-size suite of alumni-club, dance-troupe and sports-team portraits. Rockvillians don’t bowl alone, apparently.
Graham Coreil-Allen’s “The Ragged Edge of Rockville” is about place, not people, but he encourages visitors to become part of the project. They can follow his map of the neighborhood and use the provided paper and crayons to make rubbings to add to the ones already in the gallery. Possible sites to visit include the grave of Fitzgerald (from whom Coreil-Allen borrowed the “ragged edge” line and a 1913 monument whose Confederate sympathies recently became newsworthy. More interesting, though, are the service roads around the Town Center, which reveal the place’s stage-set architecture and fundamentally suburban character. Maybe R.E.M. was right to warn, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”
(Coreil-Allen will lead two-hour walking tours of the “ragged edge,” leaving from VisArts on Sept. 27 at 3 p.m. and Oct. 17 at 4 p.m.) McCain McMurray. "Metropolis," acrylic on canvas, 48 x 68 in; on view at Touchstone Gallery. (Courtesy McCain McMurray and Touchstone Gallery)
“How We Lost D.C.” was organized by a Delusions of Grandeur, a collective of six local African American artists. Its centerpiece is Wesley Clark’s “The Playing Field,” a large wooden map of the city overlaid with a diagram of football-style strategy. One team seems to be moving west to east, while
another leaves the field altogether. Clark also constructed a chess set whose pieces include skyscrapers and for-sale signs. On a related theme, Stan Squirewell offers a cluster of dialogue with such remarks as “You sold it for how much?” Pens are provided so visitors can add commentary.
Larry Cook contributed a neon sign that hangs in the window, advertising subs, chicken and Chinese food. It may draw hungry passersby in the gallery’s eatery-deprived neighborhood. He also assembled a pile of lottery tickets and tiny pencils, flanked by a broom. It’s a sort of impromptu memorial to the get-rich-quick dreams among the underpaid and underemployed.
Other pieces are less pointed, and sometimes less D.C.-centered. Shaunté Gates’s black-and-white collage-paintings, each accented by a touch of red, include one in which a man navigates a maze-city that has multiple Washington Monuments. Amber Robles-Gordon’s large wall hangings feature circular motifs, notably the snake that encircles one of them, perhaps representing the cycle of existence. Rather than winning and losing, the ringed figure suggests, there is only waxing and waning.
*(Come Back to) Rockville!* On view through Oct. 18 at Kaplan Gallery, VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200. www.visartscenter.org.
*How We Lost D.C.* On view through Oct. 31 at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Rd. SE. 202-365-8392. www.honfleurgallery.com.