The works in Marisa Baumgartner’s recent exhibition “Grande Avenues” hint at mysterious hidden qualities within graphic and photographic representations of urban iconography. Baumgartner documented, through photos and text, Washington’s 18thcentury traffic circles, all 29 of them, most of which feature a statue of an American hero. In addition, she showed photos of other famous monuments in Washington, altered by overpainting in gouache or acrylic (all works 2010).
A series of texts inscribed in pencil on paper (collectively titled “Readers,” all 22 by 28 inches) consists of the artist’s extensive biographical findings on each man portrayed in the traffic circle statues, from Ulysses S. Grant to Artemas Ward, the Revolutionary War general and Congressman from Massachusetts who is commemorated in the circle outside the museum. The sheer quantity of historical data in the works indicates the rich life stories of these men, whose statues most people probably take for granted as they drive by them every day.
The show’s largest display enacted a visual dialogue between two facing museum walls. One wall presented 14 large (120 by 30 inches) vertical photographs, each a close-up of one of the statues. They are named for the circle where the picture was taken. Facing them on the other wall was a row of 14 monochrome panels of the same size; the various hues were derived from a color in a photograph of a traffic circle that lacks a monument.
The strangest set of images, the “Overpaint” series, hung on another pair of facing walls. They are inkjet prints of the monuments of Washington culled from the National Park Service’s webcam. Pictures taken at dawn appeared on the right wall, partly overpainted in white, while images taken at dusk or nighttime hung on the left, partly overpainted in black (all 22 by 28 inches). This series could be interpreted as commentary on the city’s array of polarities-ideological, racial, social and esthetic. Most likely, however, the meaning is more subtle, in the same way that Jasper Johns’s flag paintings aren’t simply about national symbolism.
One image from this group, a paintblackened nighttime photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol, shows them seemingly aflame. Their illuminated areas are imperfectly painted out, hence the lights resemble fire or explosions. This subtly subversive image evokes Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1968).
A daughter of a Washington art dealer, the New York-based Baumgartner was educated in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University. She has done similar documentary works in France and Austria, but here in Washington, she’s engaging a city whose public localities are often signifiers for a national identity. She makes no loud-and-clear statement about that ever-controversial issue, but in an age of constant spin and political commentary, her oblique study is welcome.
Photo: View of Marisa Baumgartner’s series “Memorials,” 2010, inkjet prints, 120 by 30 inches each; at the Katzen Arts Center.