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Site, or Sight?

At Project Row Houses, where the art is may matter more than what the art is

It's difficult to say which approach is better. The De Luxe Show's paintings and sculptures defied context entirely; the work was, in fact, widely touted as "museum-quality." In contrast, PRH's exhibits depend very much on their context -- some of them are even completed by the viewer over time, or are completed by specific workshops and activities that take place there, which you have to visit the project to find out about. So it is with "Round Six," the current round of seven exhibitions in seven of PRH's houses.

Going from left to right, the first house one comes to is the Strictly Roots house. Instead of inviting a visual artist to use this house, whose interior walls have been torn down to make it one big room, the curator asked a braiding salon to set up a temporary branch here. The artist's statement says that the installation (as I would loosely refer to it) "seeks to challenge the parameters of the hair care industry by redefining natural hair sculpture as a public art form." How it does that, though, is not exactly clear. Plunking a braiding salon in a house intended for art is not enough. At times -- though not according to any publicized schedule -- the proprietor of Strictly Roots actually braided hair in the row house. That ended because the house wasn't air-conditioned, leaving me to look at an unedifying frieze of pictures of women with braids, clipped from magazines and affixed to the wall, and a note saying where to call for an appointment.

In the next house I found "The Magisterium," Dan Havel's installation of large beakers filled with colored liquids and magnifying glasses trained on the skeletons of small animals. Billed as "a laboratory where the ancient science of alchemy will be explored," the installation disappoints due to its stasis. Perhaps it was naive of me to expect a real lab -- here there are no experiments to be performed, no substances to transmute, no explanation of the seven steps to be used in the attainment of gold. There is, therefore, no metaphor to be had, despite a vague instruction to the viewer to make "personal associations that will promote the power of the alchemist within."

Two other artists in the current round of installations have created what I would call prescriptive environments -- settings that attempt to encourage some specific action or epiphany on the part of the viewer, though they're not exactly complete works of art in themselves. Bert Sample's beautifully ornate installation, "Eyuphuro," resembles the lobby of a Moroccan luxury hotel. Sample painted the floor of his house with richly colored patterns borrowed from Spanish mosques, surrounded by a border of repeated black-and-white painted ziggurats. In the windows, cutout patterned screens filter the light. And in the center of the room, a bundle of dried palm fronds is clustered like a giant, tropical flower arrangement, from which soft drum music emanates. It's an elaborate place to hang out, really, with a fresh, open feel. Local Muslims pray there, and Sample himself hosts teas -- by invitation only -- for "women from all parts of the world." The space is obviously dedicated to serve those who are close to PRH, if not necessarily the day-tripping viewer.

In "LIGHTHOUSE/spirithouse," Michelle Engelman has arranged a kind of lounge-cum-playroom. In one area, she appears to have transplanted part of her actual living quarters, complete with books, a jar of incense and photographs. Again, amateurish arrangements of magazine images, this time of the National Geographic ilk, are stuck on the walls. In another area, colored chalk serves as an invitation for guests to draw on the floor, perhaps to complete a mandala that is already partially drawn there. And in a third part of the small house, cushions are strewn on the floor under a suspended painting of what appear to be two animals. The cushions are inviting, until one realizes how little there is to contemplate in the thin, lackadaisical lines of the painting. In this installation, there is no message so clear as the beam of a true lighthouse. Rather, Engelman has mixed and matched, or really mished and mashed, tidbits of vaguely Eastern culture to create a contrived atmosphere of relaxation, meditation and study. Is there something about PRH that makes artists seek out the unbearably trite? As the artist herself says, her LIGHTHOUSE "floats on the edge of meaning and perhaps even purpose."

The next installation, by Third Ward artist and eccentric Motapa, is even worse. If curator Malone expected Motapa to install his elaborate paintings, he must have been sorely disappointed. Instead, Motapa simply hung black-and-white, low-quality-Xeroxed collages -- in some cases, several copies of the same collage -- that feature photos and headlines having mostly to do with African-Americans (Nelson Mandela, Mickey Leland, Bob Marley, the artist's mother) and Motapa's own fantasies. "Motapa Museum of Natural Health, Science and Fine Art, Curator of Museum, Dr. Alkebu Motapa," one poster reads. Pale in comparison to, yet in the same vein as, some of the Orange Show's folk art environments, these obsessive cut-and-paste jobs provoke impatience rather than interest.

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