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The term "back alley" is seldom used to describe something positive. But in the case of the Fridge DC, a Barracks Row gallery and performance art space, the words are deployed simply to give people an idea of where to find it.
Once they do, though, they're unlikely to forget it, as it stands out both in its appearance and in what it offers to the culture of Capitol Hill.
The Fridge, the brainchild and home business of Alex Goldstein, is at 516 ½ Eighth St. SE. Walk down the alley separating the administrative offices of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Senart's Oyster & Chop House, hook a quick left, and you'll see a cinder block structure adorned with colorful street art. Look for a door that has, among other things, a sticker that says "Floss DC" and stenciling that spells out "Viva La Revolución-ish," and you've arrived.
"Where I've really found my niche is working with what are traditionally called outsider artists, taggers, graffiti artists, just weirdos in general," Goldstein said.
Mail headed here is sometimes addressed to "The Fridge, Rear Alley," including a letter Goldstein received last year from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) congratulating him on receiving the 2011 Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce Hilly Award for Best Arts Business.
Landrieu, who lives on Capitol Hill while in Washington and is chairwoman of the Senate's Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, told Goldstein that his business helped fill a vital role.
"Businesses such as yours are a key part of that community feeling I have as I run errands or go on walks during the weekend," reads her letter, displayed in Goldstein's personal space at the Fridge.
"Art spaces are really undervalued," said Emma Fisher, the Fridge's assistant gallery director. "We're really proud of our role here in Capitol Hill and of adding a little spice to the place."
Goldstein acknowledged that not all of his neighbors are thrilled with his business, which is also his residence. He said he tries to be as considerate as possible about noise at his events, although with dozens of restaurants on the block that serve alcohol, his establishment is not alone in attracting a crowd on weekends.
Some of the resistance, he said, is "the neighbors just bitching that I put spray-paint on my wall. Oh, well. Sorry about your wall. Oh, wait. It's my wall."
'A Productive Atmosphere'
There are few establishments on Capitol Hill that provide the kind of experience the Fridge does.
The two most recent art shows there give an idea of what it offers to the area.
"Warhol Through the Eyes of the Children of the Perry Center," which just closed on March 1, featured the art of children who developed their own versions of the art of Andy Warhol.
Working under the guidance of the D.C. artist Decoy, kids at the Perry Center, a community services center just off North Capitol Street on M Street Northwest, viewed Warhol works at various Smithsonian outlets and then were encouraged to come up with their own takes. In one case, that meant transforming the famous collages of Chinese leader Mao Zedong to that of President George Washington. Others recolored Warhol's famous soup can.
"This [was] such an important show for us. This is everything we want the Fridge to be. Between helping disadvantaged youth, exhibiting the art, getting the local artists involved," Fisher said.
The current show, "King Me: Studies in the Uncivilized World," is far different and features a range of Washington-area artists that span the spectrum from a recent college graduate to mid-career professionals.
The man behind the show, Adam Dwight, described the 12 artists and their 33 works as an attempt to "fuse political responses, formalist concerns and visionary imagery to explore the definition of authority in America" in his curator notes.
Some of the art is recognizably political, such as Laura Elkins' oil-on-canvas portrait of herself as Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy kissing. Others are more abstract but still within the theme of the show, such as Stanley Squirewell's assemblage, "Pawn Almighty," an extra large chess piece with the barrel of a gun sticking out of its base.
One of the artists, Adrian Parsons, has made political news of his own, having participated in a hunger strike last year to protest the District's lack of Congressional representation. Parsons' contribution to the show, "Three-Quarters View," is an animated video that takes the viewer inside an empty Wendy's fast-food restaurant.
In an interview, Dwight said the elements of "King Me" came together gradually, from "intimate conversations with people" that resulted in the "polarized features of the show" revealing themselves.
"They are artists' artists. These are people who are thinking deeply about their work and how it connected to others in the space. That is a productive atmosphere," he said.
It's also a more traditional gallery offering — and a contrast to the Fridge's more typical outsider flair.
"I've never shown work as old as this work, or as expensive as this work," Goldstein said, adding, "but politically, message-wise, visually, aesthetically, you know, mechanically, it's top-notch."
The oldest work, "Palm on 97th Street" by Lisa Parker Hyatt, dates to 1977. The most expensive work, an installation of thread, canvas and metal called "Celebration of the Cross" by Seleshi Feseha, runs $20,000.
In contrast, the Perry Center kids' Warhol works ran from $10 to $100. The proceeds from those sales supported the Perry Center.
"King Me," which opened Saturday, runs through March 29.
Dwight, the curator, sees the Fridge as also providing burgeoning artists a needed refuge in an expensive city.
"The possibility of building an arts district is [for] naught. So we have to actively pursue culture here," he said. "The housing market has spurred a cultural renaissance, but it's also led to an exodus of artists who have been priced out."
Goldstein appears very comfortable with the Fridge's evolution, saying it's been something he's been planning for 30 years.
"Honestly, I started sketching the floor plan for this place when I was 10 years old," he said. "I'm 40 now. So it's been my lifelong dream and my lifelong work and ambition and drive to do this. And I did it. And I'm sitting pretty, working with professionals" on art he feels strongly about, in whatever form that takes, from graffiti art to music.
How Goldstein came to purchase the property and name it could be held up as an example of outsider repurposing — taking a discarded thing and making art out of it.
"I found the property on Craigslist," Goldstein explained, saying it took him about 11 months to renovate after he purchased it in October 2008.
"It was just a cinder block piece of junk. It looked like a sideways refrigerator, which is where the name the Fridge came from."