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Review | Your new favorite art gallery might be an apartment building lobby


One of the rare upsides to D.C.’s pricey housing crush is the promise of luxury amenities: infinity pools, podcast booths, rooftop dog parks. New apartment buildings offer these spoonfuls of sugar to help renters swallow the high price of housing in this region. These add-ons can be genuinely beneficial to residents — maybe even the influencer studios — but the utility is mostly reserved for people with key-fob access.

So it’s unusual to walk into an apartment building with no other business than to indulge in one of its private assets. Yet a few D.C. area developments are now hosting art exhibitions, inviting anyone to come in and linger as they would in any gallery, and even to buy art. It’s an alternative to the private gallery spaces whose numbers have steadily dwindled as prices for real estate have risen. And these multiunit buildings are showing art, not mere decor, or at least that’s the pledge from the curators behind them.

The Silva, an apartment building in Adams Morgan, looks like the kind of place where contemporary art would be shown. Designed by the New York-based Grimshaw Architects and D.C.’s own Core, the 172-unit project features punctuated window nooks that jut out from the building’s facade, giving the exterior a rhythmic feel. Just inside the Silva’s front door — past a mosaic mural of stylized animals in the entryway created by area artist Federico Frum, a.k.a. Mas Paz — is a corridor that doubles as a space for “Chroma,” a solo show by painter Jeremy Flick.

“Chroma” comprises seven hard-edge abstract paintings. At a glance, Flick might remind viewers of Washington Color School luminaries such as Kenneth Noland or Thomas Downing. Flick shares some of that DNA: His paintings feature overlapping polygons of color that blend in rich, sometimes unexpected ways. Yet Flick’s shaped canvases break with the pure experiments of the Color School generation, revealing a sculptural departure from the simple plane.

Flick’s paintings are pretty. “23-085” (2023), a typical work, comprises four trapezoids of red, blue, orange and green. The areas where Flick’s shapes overlap aren’t the muddy brown that mixing these colors would give you, but rather more the subtle blends. This particular painting canvas has ten sides, although the steady drumbeat of the rectangle throughout his work makes his paintings look more square than they are.

With his shaped canvases, Flick favors an approach by the likes of Charles Hinman or Frank Stella, while his dedication to color theory harks back to the square-within-a-square painter Josef Albers. Flick’s work is a dialogue with this older generation of modern artists, and the results, however vibrant, can feel dated. The right word might be vintage: There’s nothing musty about Flick’s work, and viewers who can never get enough geometric abstraction will find a lot to like.

The Silva’s presentation of “Chroma” was produced by Marta Staudinger, an art adviser who works as a curator and thinks like a broker. Instead of running a traditional gallery, her shop, Latela Curatorial, works directly with developers to program amenity spaces with local artwork. In pre-pandemic times, at least, commercial rents in the District ran at a premium too high for gallerists to afford to establish many brick-and-mortar spaces. If developers are game to add proper lighting and hanging systems to a lobby, why not cut out the middleman? After all, developers are perhaps the biggest art buyers in the region — after lawyers.

The lobby-as-gallery approach is not reserved for hungry art dealers alone. The Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art — the arts nonprofit formerly known as the Greater Reston Arts Center, which does have a storefront space — has established a satellite location in an apartment complex in downtown Reston. At the Signature, a 508-unit multiuse building on a block-sized development called Reston Town Center, artist Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre has mounted a show that rises above the building’s many distractions.

“Flare,” the multidisciplinary D.C. artist’s solo show, brings together fashion, flavor and just a touch of darkness. A Haitian American from Chicago, Jean-Pierre paints dense abstractions that point to rich textiles. For paintings such as “Future Memories IV” (2021), his brushstroke is patterned and controlled, as if he were weaving his abstraction. Yet in a separate set of paintings, his approach is thicker, grayer and more subdued. Still other pieces look like fierce fashion designs: collaged figures made with painting, fabrics and other materials. And a fourth series adds a sculptural dimension, with photos of ceramic figurines of children painted a glossy black.

Jean-Pierre’s work is all over the place, in the best possible sense. His artistic experiments orbit the richness of the African diaspora without ever landing at a single theme. The paintings run the gamut of abstraction, from moody to exuberant. The collages are inviting and trendy. The sculptures are deliberate kitsch. There’s a cohesive vision waiting to emerge in Jean-Pierre’s work, but he’s not idling.

The limits of the apartment-gallery model are apparent in “Flare.” The photos of sculptures should just be the sculptures themselves, but it’s hard to see how the space at the Signature could host such works without building vitrines that would interrupt the space’s use as a hallway. Competing with the needs of a working residential space is a drawback. And there are limits to what kind of art can work in this kind of space. Residents aren’t going to tolerate performance art on their way to get the mail, naturally, but they might not also want to see a painting or photograph with challenging material.

The Signature is a dense development designed by the D.C. firm Shalom Baranes Associates, and Tephra’s space at the Signature is just one of many amenities in the building’s ground level. And for a city strapped for galleries, these informal spaces add up to cultural infrastructure: At this same time last year, Jean-Pierre showed his work at the Silva in Adams Morgan, in another Latela Curatorial presentation. No one’s going to mistake an apartment space for a white-cube gallery, but it offers a lot more to residents than a lot of concepts for amenities that go idle and gives something to the city to boot. Developers, take note.

The Silva, 1630 Columbia Rd. NW.

Admission: Free. Open to the public Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Flare: Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre

Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art at the Signature, 11850 Freedom Dr., Reston.

Admission: Free. Open to the public Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

POST AUTHOR: Kriston Capps

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