10 Exhibitions to Visit in Washington, DC, Summer 2024

A gallery owner from Washington, DC, recently told me that 2024 wouldn’t be a good year for sales. “For one thing, it’s an election year, which is never good,” they pointed out. “Then, we may have Trump back on the ballot, which will unsettle the locals. I think most buyers will sit out the market this year, at least until November.” Their comments reminded me of a prediction I made, which I stand by: Another Trump presidency would be disastrous for politics, but terrific for the arts. There’s nothing like the creative output of an outraged art community. Indeed, this women-dominated round-up speaks volumes about what is at stake in the coming year. Money may sit out the market, but you won’t want to miss these shows, from the fiercely political textile art at the National Gallery of Art to a group show of SWANA photographers at the Middle East Institute and the anti-war engravings of 17th-century French artist Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella. But don’t just dwell in the anticipation of a sure-to-be climactic fall season — take a breather this summer. Lose yourself in the queer utopias mapped out by five artists at Transformer gallery, or imagine yourself as part of the bohemian atmosphere of 20th-century Paris, like the artists on view in Brilliant Exiles at the National Portrait Gallery.

Dinos Chapman and Jason Yates: Too Little Too Late

Combine two artists infamous for their grotesque aesthetics in a commercial setting, and you get Too Little Too Late. Dinos Chapman creates colorful and brutal fantasies with modified mannequin parts, zombie-esque monsters on pillars swinging baseball bats, and a life-size androgynous child staring at themself and the exhibition through a large mirror. Jason Yates’s work surrounds this nightmare with assemblages straight out of a post-apocalyptic lost and found, including cans of food, wind chimes, and prefabricated signs. The two artists share an interest in disturbed Americana: If Chapman tries to disguise his vision as the product of a child’s imagination, Yates returns the viewer to an unmistakably adult reality.

Von Ammon Co. (vonammon.co)
3330 Cady’s Alley Northwest, Washington, DC
Through June 16

E21: A Different Horizon Atlas: Collaboratively Mapping Queer Utopias

Transformer is one of the DC art community’s best-kept secrets. Founded in 2003 by Victoria Reis, one of the veterans of the city’s punk-rock era, the gallery remains true to the ethos of its origins, regularly showcasing radical creators who are either ignored by the mainstream or remain willing outsiders to pack a big punch in a small space. Every year, the gallery runs an Exercises for Emerging Artists program. This year’s project, titled A Different Horizon Atlas, coincides with Pride Month. Organized by artist and mentor Jaimes Mayhew, four American artists and one Swedish artist come together to explore the theme of building queer utopias through digital and physical processes. Clay Scofield, Lin Hoerner, MC Coble, Niki Afsar, and Lane Timothy Speidel each created a piece of map art for the exhibition, and Transformer will also hold artist talks, a panel, a poster- and costume-building event with Mayhew, and other events in conjunction with the annual Capital Pride festival on June 9. 

Transformer (transformerdc.org)
1404 P Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through July 13

Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction

I’m always drawn to a show with the word “history” in its title, and I expect nothing less than a reimagining of the past and a reshaping of my perspective. Woven Histories lives up to these expectations. The exhibition picks up a new thread from ongoing discussions about the gendered, racial, and economic dynamics of the marginalization of textile art and its practitioners, emphasizing the relationship between the medium and abstract art through 160 works by 50 artists. More than a few masterpieces are on display, showcasing the diverse imaginations of these artists and the various paths they’ve taken. Rosemarie Trockel’s “My Dear Colleagues” (1986), for instance, combines a plastic body with knitted sleeves, highlighting the fine line between fashion and art and summoning poignant associations with the perilous working conditions of contemporary sweatshops through its red-stained sleeves. These works may initially read as aesthetically pleasing abstractions, but closer inspection reveals their fiercely political nature.

National Gallery of Art (nga.gov)
Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC
Through July 28

New Worlds: Women to Watch 2024

After a long renovation, the National Museum of Women in Arts reopened in October with a series of remarkable shows highlighting the strength of its growing collection. New Worlds: Women To Watch 2024 is designed like a series of art pavilions dedicated to the recent work of 28 emerging women artists, who hail from a wide range of countries, including Argentina, Germany, India, and Palestine — though the wall label for the latter reads “Israel.” The press release states that the theme of the exhibition is “alternate realities,” and the show spans topics including but not limited to artificial insemination, global warming, terminal illness, and protest culture. Marina Vargas’s “Intra-Venus” (2019–21), for instance, is a life-size sculpture modeled after the artist’s own body following her mastectomy in a tribute to breast cancer patients, challenging patriarchal aesthetics. New Worlds is not a small show — it demands viewers’ time, and rewards them accordingly.

National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org)
1250 New York Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC
Through August 11

Forces of Nature: Voices that Shaped Environmentalism

The history of environmentalism in the United States is a thorny one, as seen in the National Portrait Gallery’s Forces of Nature, which displays 28 portraits of artists, scientists, activists, politicians, and writers who have shaped the movement for almost 200 years. The show traces its evolution, beginning with 19th-century figures such as naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and early conservationist George Perkins Marsh, bringing in discussions of the effectiveness of methods like wilderness preservation and the conservation of natural resources. This show is small, however, and has holes that the museum acknowledges; the press release states that the perspectives of grassroots activists and Indigenous communities are underrepresented. Couldn’t an institution with the resources of the Smithsonian have tried to fill these gaps, especially for a show that coincides with an election year? In the face of a quickly deteriorating natural environment, we need to be responsible at this historical juncture and face radical questions — a call to action that this show fails to heed.

National Portrait Gallery (npg.si.edu)
8th Street Northwest and G Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through September 2

Louder Than Hearts: Women Photographers from the Arab World and Iran

Louder Than Hearts is a must-see exhibition in the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, one of the most devastating humanitarian and political crises of our lifetimes. Curated by Palestinian-Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar, the show brings together the works of 10 women photographers from across Southwest Asia and North Africa to highlight the fragility of nationalism. Instead of regionalizing their experiences, the artist on view, which include Rehaf Al Batniji, Tasneem Alsultan, and Thana Faroq, use the diverse geography of the region as a backdrop to their subjects’ shared strengths and vulnerabilities. Consciously avoiding nationalist symbolism, the show emphasizes SWANA women’s roles in their communities through portraiture, depicting a range of acts well beyond domestic labor, such as taking up arms in support of revolution. Portraits of activists, artists, educators, soldiers, and revolutionaries are accompanied by biographical information that breathes life into these images. At a time when survival alone is a challenge to some of its subjects, the show is a testament to their enduring strength and creativity.

Middle East Institute (mei.edu)
1763 N Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through October 4

Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women

A who’s who of fiber art, Subversive, Skilled, Sublime consists of sewn quilts, woven tapestries and rugs, beaded and embroidered ornamentation, twisted and bound sculptures, and multi-media assemblages exclusively by established and older women artists, almost half of whom are no longer with us. Standard-bearers like Olga de Amaral, Faith Ringgold, and Judith Scott make appearances in this show, as well as lesser-known artists such as Marguerite Zorach, Clementine Hunter, and Mariska Karasz, whose works are often categorized as “folk art.” Combining works of art with artists’ statements and historical context, including archival materials that provide insight into creative processes and studio practices, the show highlights themes of domesticity, feminism, and the male-dominated commercial art world’s disowning of fiber art. 

Smithsonian American Art Museum (americanart.si.edu)
G Street Northwest and 8th Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through January 5, 2025

Impressive: Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella

Very little is known about 17th-century French artist Antoinette Bouzonnet-Stella apart from her association with her family’s workshop, where she worked alongside her siblings, and which is currently housed within the Louvre Museum in Paris. We can piece together that she assisted her maternal uncle, the painter and printmaker Jacques Stella, in creating print reproductions of his paintings. By the time her life was cut short at 35, however, she had evidently become a distinguished engraver in her own right. In 1675, she received a commission from Jean-Baptiste Colbert, advisor to King Louis XIV and vice-protector of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, who sought to utilize her work to promote a “French style” rooted in classical art. The result was a series of 25 prints titled The Entrance of the Emperor Sigismond into Mantua (1675/1787), reproducing Giulio Romano’s Renaissance frieze for the Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy. Those prints, now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, bear witness to the existence of numerous female masters whose names are yet to be recognized. The engravings themselves are exquisite, depicting what seems to be a triumphant parade after a hard-won victory. But look closer, and the details reveal another narrative: The horrors of war are etched on the faces of enslaved women and children, as well as animals including horses, camels, bulls, and even a ram and a wild boar.

National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org)
1250 New York Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC
Through October 20

Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900–1939

The jury may still be out on what made Paris the center of the arts during the first half of the 20th century, but the evidence is insurmountable: A canonical body of work by artists such as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and André Breton demonstrates that the city was the preferred destination of bohemians from around the world until the Nazi invasion in 1940. Brilliant Exiles highlights the stories of the American women who moved to the European capital in order to escape the prejudices to which they were subjected at home. Augusta Savage, Anaïs Nin, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, and Gertrude Vanderbilt are represented, but the show also brings forth the legacy of lesser-known women like Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset, the stage performer Florence Mills, and the jazz singer and nightclub owner Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Brilliant Exiles makes apparent the critical influence and sheer number of women who chose Paris as a springboard to their eventual status as transformative figures in their respective fields.

National Portrait Gallery (npg.si.edu)
8th Street Northwest and G Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through February 23, 2025

Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass

Last year, the National Portrait Gallery opened an exhibition on the life of Frederick Douglass. In conjunction with that show, the museum acquired a 2019 piece by British experimental filmmaker Isaac Julien. “Lessons of the Hour” is more docudrama than archival research, portraying two historic moments in Douglass’s life, both in DC: the eponymous speech he delivered on January 9, 1894, at the Metropolitan A. M. E. Church and the creation of his famous portrait by the Black photographer J.P. Ball in Douglass’s historic home. Excerpts from the speech serve as voiceover throughout the film, opening with praise of photography as a revolutionary form of historical preservation but quickly transitioning into a lament that it would also necessarily record the injustices of slavery. Interwoven with archival footage, including Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, Jr. in 2015 — the same city in which Douglass was enslaved, and where he ultimately escaped bondage — the film complements the museum’s mission of exhibiting portraiture as an artistic and historical tool.

Smithsonian American Art Museum (americanart.si.edu)
G Street Northwest and 8th Street Northwest, Washington, DC
Through December 6, 2026

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