At the Corcoran Gallery – Taking His Time

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

Among the work on display by students graduating from the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design are wet plate tintypes by Sebastien Arbona.

This week has seen the opening of NEXT, the annual show at Washington, DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art of work by students graduating from the Corcoran art school.  This year is the first time the show has happened under the new stewardship of The George Washington University.  For those unfamiliar with the tale, unresolved financial problems at the joint Corcoran Gallery and Corcoran College resulted in its rebirth (or destruction, depending on your point of view) last summer.  As a result, the gallery holdings are now owned by the National Gallery of Art and the school is part of Columbian College at GWU.  Having the thesis work of students exhibited in such a beautiful, world class gallery space has been a prime opportunity for students and public alike, and I’m sure many are relieved that the new status of the program did not mean the end of this arrangement.

The opening reception was high energy all around:  flowing wine, pounding music, and rooms and rooms of artwork.  The overall caliber of the projects was high, and the work was diverse, including sculptures, prints and paintings large and small, installations, graphic design, video, and performance (one student with his pants rolled up spent the evening in a wooden pen, manipulating hundreds of pounds of clay, and a few rooms away another student served beer).

Several wet plate tintypes by Sebastien ArbonaAnd, of course, there was photography.  Photojournalism and fine art photography are both represented in the show, and the project that most caught my attention was an array of forty wet plate tintype self-portraits by Sebastien Arbona.  The images themselves range from obvious portraits to figure studies to the barely decipherable.  The artist told me that his exposure time was four minutes, and experimentation was very much a part of the process.   Variables in coating, posing and processing would yield a result that informed his next set of choices.  These repeated steps were done in part “to gain a better understanding of my emotions, both known and unknown.”  Alt photo processes typically demand time commitments and a degree of experimentation quite unlike that of other approaches.  Forty 4-minute exposures represent 160 minutes of Arbona’s life, there for us to contemplate.  He took his time while making this work, and the result is something that asks for attention in return.

The exhibition runs through May 18.  The Corcoran Gallery, located at 500 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, is open Thursday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Wednesday from 10 am until 9 pm.

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