Bringing the subterranean to the surface


Every time the air conditioner runs at the Art Whino gallery on St. Asaph St., a few radiant works of art slump askew on the wall a byproduct of the gallerys building, which used to house the Alexandria Gazettes printing press. Like its art, the gallery is a radical wallflower in an area saturated with classic art venues.

Upon entering, it became immediately apparent that this place is an Alexandrian anomaly, its self-described lowbrow label pigeonholing its Old Town existence. But with 133 artists, Art Whino is not lonely for company.

Nothing about the 9,000 square foot viewing floor was intellectually undemanding, either; not the abstract mural of a human form along the stairway, not the colorful blasts emanating from the street art-influenced pieces. Even the small bar area, where a retro fridge revealed Heineken-green and Corona-yellow beer bottles (appropriate for a warm Friday around happy hour) seemed artful, making avant-garde a more apt description for this museum of rugged gems.

Its a wormhole into Soho, said Art Whinos owner, Shane Pomajambo. People come out to Old Town for its historic charm, you know. But if they make a wrong turn, they could end up here, he laughed.

Some people asked, What are you doing? People around here dont want to see this type of art, Art Director Susannah Parnin said.

But Pomajambos art spot gets business because of its edginess, not in spite of it.  Art Whino features emerging aritsts using emerging techniques from around the world spray paint stencil on three panes of glass, for one. It seeks a following just as broad, from the curious classic art lover to the artist looking for direction.

Its bringing the arts together, Pomajambo said. Its bringing all the people from collectors to curators to art lovers to one place.

Were trying to make art more accessible, Parnin added.

Pomajambo said he wants the gallery to be an easily approachable place that avoids the traditional and often intimidating atmosphere of a high-art exhibition, so Were treating it as an experience by holding events a minimum six hours long so attendees can make a night of it. Shows are free and open to the public, with artist-taught classes being offered in the future.

Accessibility to the gallery will likely be easier once the new locale opens at National Harbor this week. The mixed-use development across the river from Alexandria is expected to lure tourists into Old Town, so Art Whino will have both banks covered. In fact, the underground art joint was the first retail space to get a permit at the new tourism magnet.

While it caters to the mass viewing public, perhaps more progressive is Art Whinos alternative dealings with artists themselves. Traditional galleries tend to choose the work they put on display, but Art Whino lets the artist decide.

We just tell out artists to send their five favorites, Parnin said. We always keep at least one piece up, so we invite them to keep sending them and we switch them in and out.

Traditional galleries with high priced pieces can scare people off, Pomajambo said. However, since his artist are emerging, their pieces tend to float around three or four hundred dollars and max out at about one grand.

70 percent of our work is emerging artists and 70 percent is under 1,000 dollars, Pomajambo said. It kind of makes people wake up because the majority of times, when people go to art shows, they already know theyre not dropping $7,000 on a piece. Thats like buying a car for most people.

You pay three to four hundred now and I think some of these pieces will be worth three or four thousand.

An architect by training, Pomajambo opened the gallery about seven months ago out of jealousy. When he realized that the DC areas underground art scene was lacking compared to Californias, the avid follower of graffiti-influenced street art said, Lets do it.

Some of these [California] galleries have three or four shows every Friday, Pomajambo said. I was so jealous. I was like, I wish we had this. And Art Whino was born.

Art Whinos name is resolutely vague and open to interpretation. Pomajambo said some people think its his given name, and he sometimes plays along. Despite the spelling indicating a nagging babys wail, Pomajambo said the version to which he subscribes is that people are addicted to art like winos are addicted to wine.

When asked why he didnt open his subterranean project in a more urban setting like DC perhaps a site more conducive to his artists styles Pomajambo sat back on his regal red couch, thought for a moment and sipped his Corona. Maybe this is the place that needed it most, he said.