Just down the road from The Wharf and Navy Yard stands a bold fixture devoted to art: Culture House. The building, a repurposed historic church, is covered in vibrant paintings both inside and out. The space houses rotating exhibits, concerts and events. In March, Culture House’s first sculpture exhibition, “Death and Donuts,” was cut short by Covid.
The exhibit was a dark, satirical and reflective show that scrutinized the cyclical nature of innovation and development. An all-black boat on stilts, iridescent light columns that draw viewers in like moths to a flame, a human terrarium and a reflecting pool were some of the pieces included in this exhibit. Curator Zachary Levine described the show as “art for the Anthropocene, for the new era of humans.”
“I, like a lot of people, am of the opinion that artists are trying to tap into what it feels like to be living in the present,” Levine says. “They have a greater ability to do that than a lot of people on an intellectual level. What the artists are able to do is capture the feeling of living in this moment – of a little bit of dread, but also a sense of come what may.”
Heidi Zenisek and Michael Thron, the artists whose works were featured in “Death and Donuts,” have rather unique styles. They described the exhibit as two separate shows in one collaborative space. Despite this, both of their works are meant to reflect on society and give viewers the means to interpret the deeper implications. Zenisek and Thron stress that their role is as “artists as witness” and not as all-knowing creators.
“I don’t want to just give answers,” Thron explains. “I want to give you questions. If you know the answer, then you can just move on. But if the work is creating a question, they have a moment to think about that and question what they know – maybe about themselves or the world. If they happen to see what I see, that’s cool. If they don’t, I’m interested in what they see.”
The show’s name brought up many questions including: What was the connection between death and a popular pastry?
“Death, the inevitable, [is] something that we’re thinking about more and more if we don’t change with these climate issues,” Thron begins. “That’s the one thing we know for certain: We will die.”
“And then the donuts is this artificiality [of] trying to fix things and glaze over the issue,” Zenisek says, finishing Thron’s train of thought. “Just manically trying to fix these things and then the fixing just causes more problems – it’s just this spiral of death and donuts.”
Looking back, “Death and Donuts” almost foreshadowed what was to come. Shortly after interviewing and photographing the artists and curator, the coronavirus shut everything down, making it impossible for the public to view the timely works of art. At the time, no one knew how long it would be until guests could safely return to Culture House. But co-founder and benefactor Steven Tanner says he could not have imagined it would be seven months until Culture House was able to reopen its doors.
“When the shutdown first happened, no one had any idea that it would have gone on for this long,” Tanner says. “As a nonprofit, our mission is to provide public access to the arts and also a space for artists to exhibit their work. This mission is largely financially supported by the event revenue that comes in from rentals (weddings, dinner parties, etc.) How do we pivot what has always been a very open house approach into something more structured to protect the health and safety of visitors and staff?”
Though Thron and Zenisek’s works no longer live in Culture House, the space has certainly learned from their messaging and has not simply glazed over the issues at hand. The organization now has a digitized ticketing system, which allows them to keep within the Covid-safe capacity. Tanner believes this positive change could have been helpful even pre-Covid, and will be a mechanism they keep in the future. In addition to the technical improvements, Culture House’s outdoor Avant Garden is being utilized to show murals by local artists.
“Much like restaurants being forced into doing takeout, we were forced to figure this out – and it’s for our benefit,” Tanner concludes. “When the time is finally right, we’ll be able to gather in and around this historic landmark, to host parties and events that flow out from the gallery and into the Avant Garden. There has never been a more perfect time for Culture House’s revival, and the next phase of art and community that it has always represented.”
Reserve your visit to Culture House by visiting www.culturehousedc.org. Follow Culture House on Facebook and Instagram @culturehousedc to stay up-to-date on all exhibitions. Learn more about Heidi Zenisek’s art by visiting www.heidizenisek.com, or following her on Instagram @theheidz. Learn more about Michael Thron’s art by visiting www.michaelthron.com.
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