Capitol Hill art gallery the Fridge has opened up a second exhibition space, allowing the Barracks Row institution to feature two solo shows at the same time. The development has resulted in the current lineup, showcasing graffiti writer Asad Walker, aka ULTRA, and his "Quiet Walks in Dangerous Places" in the main space and Laura Elkins' "Packin' Heat Talkin' Dirty" in the new "Mini-Fridge."
Walker has traded in brick walls for canvases in his first solo show at the Fridge.
Walker, 46, a local graffiti legend whose mother was an artist, has been painting canvases even longer than he’s been tagging D.C. street corners. Like many graffiti writers, he keeps a strict separation between his graffiti and gallery work and doesn’t incorporate his tag or hand style into his paintings.
“My thing is portraiture — I try to take a graffiti point of view to it,” he said. “I don’t know if what I do on canvas is graffiti in any way. If you saw one of my canvases, I don’t know if you would think I was a graffiti artist.”
He’s raised six kids, worked security in clubs on U Street and served five years in Lorton Prison, where he earned his GED before being released in 2001. His varied life experiences, as well as his late-night strolls painting graffiti on the D.C. streets, shaped the theme of his new show.
“Going out and painting graffiti, I always see this beautiful stuff,” he said. “I’ll just see shooting stars or deer running down Georgia Avenue. I’m out at four or five in the morning, and it translates to all these ordinary, city people that I meet day to day. They’re not models or anything like that, and I try to capture that vibe.”
Walker’s artistic style was influenced by D.C. go-go graffiti, known for its straight, easy-to-read letters, and he began writing the name “HOBO” in go-go style in 1981. He moved to New York in the mid-'80s, and his art evolved because he was surrounded by sophisticated, innovative graffiti. He adopted the name “ULTRA” when he returned to D.C. in 1990 and began increasing his graffiti fame by going out and painting every night.
Because he learned fine art skills at an early age, the jump from putting art in the streets to the galleries was easy for him. His first gallery show was a group exhibit at the Artomatic festival in 2008. Soon, his work began appearing at the Smithsonian, Torpedo Factory, MOCA Gallery and elsewhere.
After his stint in prison, he realized he wanted to spend more time with his family and give back to the D.C. community. That’s why he started teaching art classes and running mural workshops with teenagers who have been involved in gangs at the Upcounty Youth Opportunity Center in Gaithersburg, Md.
“There are some creative young guys, and I like to see them get some of the encouragement I didn’t have,” he said. “Maybe they wont make the same mistakes I made. Maybe they won't take as long as I did to make art my career.”
He feels that anyone can be an artist and almost anything can be art. “A lot of people come in and say, 'I can’t draw.' To me there’s not much separating an artist and an everyday person. It’s just the will to put a pen to paper.” And while he understands that some people don’t see graffiti as art, “when I see graffiti, I see someone trying to communicate. And art is just someone trying to communicate thoughts and memories. To me, that’s a perfect opportunity to grab a kid and teach them better ways to communicate.”
Elkins' work features a more political bent with a wicked sense of humor.
Michelle Obama reading Randall Kennedy’s shockingly titled book. Eleanor Roosevelt perusing Cosmopolitan and holding a gun. Betty Ford clutching a banana topped with a condom. The Capitol Hill artist mashes together portraits of herself as first ladies with controversial political imagery. Her show opened Oct. 6 with Walker’s.
One of the series in the show, “Dirty Words,” began with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” and expanded to explore “taboo” social and political issues such as racism, abortion, drugs and contraception. For abortion, she painted herself as Ford with a coat hanger necklace. Another painting has her as Ford with a condom-sheathed banana, an echo of controversies over contraception and sex education.
But the most provocative work might be Elkins’ portrait of herself as Michelle Obama reading “N***er: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” a comprehensive study of the racial slur’s roots, history and significance in modern culture by Harvard law professor Kennedy. The painting was originally supposed to be part of a First Amendment-themed calendar for the ACLU. And the former director of the National Capital Area ACLU, Johnny Barnes, urged Elkins to paint something involving “that word.”
“[Johnny Barnes] is black, and when he was at Georgetown Law School, in a fit of rebellion, he started a football or basketball team, and they called themselves ‘The N***ers.’ Then he got called into the dean’s office. So that’s how it started … I think it’s important, doing myself as Michelle. It allows me to grapple with race in America. Because we don’t live in a post-racial society.”
Elkins, who was born in Alabama and raised in Oxford, Miss., said the first ladies series began after her move to Washington in 2000, when she saw the official first lady portraits in the White House.
“It’s become a really flexible and creative way to look at the self-portrait, the figure,” she said. “It’s become more and more political as time goes on. The device is flexible enough that I can respond to current events as they’re happening, which I think is a little unusual for painting.”
She was fascinated by how the first ladies were all older than she was but painted at “some sort of indeterminate age, no wrinkles. What if I painted them for real and used myself? It was a way to grapple with middle age and get that political and historical twist by using them.”
Other paintings featured in the show are from her “Summer in the City” series, which juxtaposes guns with summer leisure activities like swimming, sunbathing, reading and snorkeling. They’re also portraits of herself as various first ladies, from Jackie Kennedy to Lady Bird Johnson to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Summer” takes the American fascination with guns, Elkins said, to its logical and darkly humorous conclusion: that you have to have a gun everywhere. Hillary Clinton eats watermelon, Mamie Eisenhower brandishes a tennis racket and Pat Nixon holds up tanning oil, all while clutching guns in their other hands.
“Packin’ Heat Talkin’ Dirty” and “Quiet Walks in Dangerous Place” will be on exhibit at the Fridge, 516 ½ Eigth St. SE, through Oct. 28. There will be an artist talk with Elkins on Saturday, a film screening and talk featuring street artist BORF on Sunday and a closing party Oct. 28.