Walking into MOCA DC's gallery for the opening of the Homeless Art Project, the first thing I noticed was the space. Tucked away in a back corner of Georgetown next to a cluster of other galleries, MOCA DC is an awkward hourglass shape. The front room can hold about ten people comfortably, and the slightly bigger back room has a maximum capacity, I would guess, of twenty. The only connection was one narrow hallway holding one artist's work. Despite the unfortunate limitations of the space, the work itself is worth the trip.
Ninety percent of the work featured in the gallery belongs to Tammy deGruchy, a West Virginia native who has travelled the country talking to homeless residents on the streets, in domestic violence shelters, and in homeless centers. All of her works are oil paintings on canvas, all done from photographs she takes of the people she interviews. Her paintings are people-centric with limited, often blurred, backrounds and careful clothing detail on the individuals she hopes to highlight.
I'm not a huge fan of painting from a photograph if for no other reason than the paintings always look, well, like photographs. If that's the aesthetic you're going for, you might as well just work with the photograph. Considering Ms. deGruchy's emphasis on blurred lines and soft colors, I think an enlarged soft-focus photograph could be just as effective as an oil painting. That said, Ms. deGruchy is an accomplished painter, and as a series of work her paintings are fairly captivating. My only criticism is that the lack of backround in the painting reinforces a general lack of consideration of the context of how people become homeless in the first place. I think if the artist would put up parts of her interviews along with the paintings it would create a far more enriching narrative and might bring the stories, not the aesthetic, to the forefront of her work.
Two other artists share the space with deGruchy, though "share" might be a bit too strong a term. With two works a piece, the other artists feel like afterthoughts in the show. As if to prove that point, one of the two artists was stuck in the small hallway where no one could stop to see his work without disrupting traffic. Pat Apt's two things displayed were, I think, aquatint. Since I couldn't inspect too closely, I could be wrong, but they're some type of etching. Where deGruchy's paintings are very literal, Apt's are highly symbolic. Though there was clearly some careful etching, I think the artist still has some way to go. Both pieces were reliant on slogans and archetypes (e.g. people with blindfolds and bags of money running past someone sleeping on a bench) that might resonate with some, but don't add much that is original.
The other artist featured was placed along the wall next to the hallway, also easy to miss. I highly recommend you not. Easily the best artist there, Scott Angus' featured work consisted of 8" x 10" line drawings that were very complex and figurative. His best was "Man in the Moon," a tiny drawing depicting something very similar to the common children's illustration while rain falls in the foreground. From the perspective of a homeless person trying to sleep through the rain, the drawing has an ambience of hopelessness that is hard to convey. The expression of an emotion instead of an illustration of homelessness was refreshing in contrast to the other artists, but his subject matter is also clearly better. The idea of focusing on children's stories while inscribing a different connotation is, I can attest, a far better way to express the struggle of living without a home while not relying on stereotypes and symbols that often keep viewers at a sterile distance from the subject matter.