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Leo Villareal exhibit is a light take on 1960s works

By Mark Jenkins,

The quality of light is one of the most beguiling aspects of classical painting, and artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer are treasured for their distinctive styles of illumination. But what if someone skips the painting part and works directly with light? That’s what Leo Villareal does, making kinetic sculpture with computer-programmed LEDs. Such constructions as “Multiverse,” whose pulsing white lights illuminate the tunnel between the National Gallery’s two buildings, have prompted delight and disdain (including a 2008 pan in this paper).

Villareal’s recent pieces, five of which are glowing at Conner Contemporary Art, trade rat-a-tat dots for slower motions and more diffuse light. Much of his “New Work” is explicitly modeled on 1960s color-field painting:

Villareal’s new work simulates with electric light the work of color-field painters. The circular “Target 2” looks like, and is named after, Kenneth Noland’s “target” series transliterated into electric light. Two versions of “Scramble” riff on Frank Stella’s “scramble” series. “Coded Spectrum” is modeled on Peter Halley’s day-glo geometric canvases, although Washington art veterans who encounter these bands of color may also think of local stripe-painting virtuoso Gene Davis.

Villareal uses two sets of algorithms, one of which samples the other, to provide a viewing experience that’s not quite infinite but might as well be. The technique is impressive, and the shifting play of colors is mesmerizing. The “Scrambles,” especially, are less energetic but more involving than “Multiverse” and similar works. The growth in Villareal’s style is substantial — even if he, like so many contemporary artists, is seeking a sort of refuge in art-historical references.

Among the art-schooled (a group that includes Villareal, who went to Yale and New York University), simply making pretty things is regarded with skepticism. The New York artist has justified his eye-pleasing pieces as actually being illustrations of mathematician John Conway’s theories. But “New Work” makes it a little harder to argue that Villareal’s art isn’t light for light’s sake. He’s still writing code, but the use of lush, swirling color puts him in direct competition with post-painterly abstraction, illuminated urban signage and — two words that may forever haunt Villareal — lava lamps.

Gene Davis

As it happens, Marsha Mateyka Gallery is now showing work from Gene Davis’s estate. Davis (who died in 1985) is well represented in local museums, so such large stripe paintings as 1967’s “Untitled” won’t surprise. (Its color-popping rhythms are pretty great, nonetheless.) Also included are some freehand stripe drawings, executed with felt-tip pens in 1980-81, that don’t really stand on their own. More interesting are the variations on the artist’s best-known format, and some early pieces that bear no resemblance to it.

Six 1950s pen-and-ink works show the influence of early-20th-century European modernists, notably Klee. Three are in black and white, but the others add watercolor, presaging the bold hues of Davis’s major paintings. There’s also an early canvas, 1959’s “Yellow Stripe,” that uses only two colors, and three later ones that are similarly minimalist. “Homage to Newman” emulates Barnett Newman’s bisected canvases, but is tonally quite different. In 1985’s large “Untitled,” a small box of black and blue lines offers subtle contrast to the loosely painted purple field that contains it, while 1982’s “Concord” arrays red and black bands in an almost-chaste dance. It musters far fewer colors than Davis’s trademark canvases, yet its tempo is just as upbeat.

Masters of Soviet Dissent

Marking Vladimir Putin’s latest term as Russian president, which began last month, Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art is presenting “Lest We Forget: Masters of Soviet Dissent.” It showcases work by two very different artists who share at least one thing: exile. Leonhard Lapin, an Estonian whose style is minimal and hard-edged, spent years in Finland. Alexander Zhdanov, a Russian whose style is looser and more folkloric, was deported in 1987, and lived in Washington until his 2006 death.

Lapin and Zhdanov were among the dissident artists known as “non-conformists.” While their work was considered anti-Soviet in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s hardly alien to the region’s traditions. Zhdanov draws on 19th-century Russian figurative painting, albeit with a looser hand, a darker palette and elements of collage. His paintings, most of them untitled, are nearly drained of color, evoking actual or spiritual night. They suggest French expressionism transplanted to a most un-Mediterranean clime. One large canvas shows a figure on a darkened road, alone under a white circle of moon. Whatever sort of quest the person has undertaken, it lacks the “scientific” certainty of Socialist Realism.

Art, politics, religion and sex are reduced to elementary forms in Lapin’s prints and drawings, in one color (black) or two (adding red, gold or silver). His templates include Supremacism, Pop Art and commercial graphics, including bar codes. The “Woman Machine” series combines perfect circles with idealized female curves, yielding images that look more like mechanical diagrams than sexy pinups. Another series, made in 1989-90, forces such symbols as stars and crosses into uneasy combinations to represent such unlikely past alliances as “Surrealism and Socialism” or “Molotov and Ribbentrop.” Delivering a witty critique with semaphore-like simplicity, these prints are just the sort of thing that could get a guy run out of town.

Micheline Klagsbrun

Spring has been leafy in local galleries, which have recently shown paintings, sculpture and photographs of trees. Micheline Klagsbrun’s “Tree Fever” is also arboreal but with a mythological twist. Inspired by Ovid’s telling of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, the Studio Gallery exhibition shows half-human, half-vegetal forms in various states of twining — and of undress. Klagsbrun’s paintings and drawings are erotic, although not blithely so. Apollo desires Daphne, who’s not interested. To escape the lustful god, she becomes a laurel tree.

Whether using oil, ink, gouache, pastel or colored pencil, Klagsbrun has a fluid style that suits the theme of transformation. She depicts limbs, both pink and green, that can become near-abstract tendrils. Some of the images are violent, suggesting the explosive metamorphoses of sci-fi movies, and all are vivid and dynamic. Daphne will not go quietly, even if her fate is to become rooted in place and have her leaves used for wreaths to be worn by (male) heroes. Just in case you wondered what side of this non-lovers’ spat Klagsbrun takes, her remarks call Apollo’s claim on Daphne “obnoxious.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Leo Villareal: New Work

on view through June 30 at Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave. NE; 202-588-8750, www.connercontemporary.com.

Gene Davis: Paintings
and Drawings from the Estate of the Artist

on view through June 30 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW; 202-328-0088; www.marshamateykagallery.com.

Lest We Forget:
Masters of Soviet Dissent

on view through June 30 at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art,
1300 13th St. NW, 202-638-3612, www.charleskrausereporting.com.

Micheline Klagsbrun:
Tree Fever

on view through June 16 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW; 202-232-8734; www.studiogallerydc.com.

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