In Unison: 20 Washington, D.C. Artists

Mixed Media
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In Unison: 20 Washington, D.C. Artists photo
Courtesy Joyce Wellman
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Editorial Review

D.C. artists exhibition at Kreeger Museum eschews the cutting edge for the cozily familiar

By Kriston Capps
Saturday, January 15, 2011

One of the first museum exhibitions of the new year picks up exactly where last year left off.

"In Unison: 20 Washington, D.C., Artists," a show of 20 prints that opened Saturday at the Kreeger Museum, fits with a number of D.C. retrospective shows that closed out last year. This show assembles works that suggest an older era of Washington art.

One problem, though: The art is all new, and the show's not intended to be a retrospective.

Although "In Unison" purports to bring together classic Washington artists in a spirit of improvisation, most of the artists involved chose to play the same old song.

Sam Gilliam, the painter who selected the artists for "In Unison," has been at the heart of many reflective exhibitions. He was a signature artist in the Washington Project for the Arts' 35th anniversary "Catalyst" retrospective. The Corcoran Gallery of Art could not do a show on the Washington Color School painters without including Gilliam, who is featured in the "Washington Color and Light" exhibition, which opened in November.

This month, the artist will drape one of his signature unsupported canvases around the Phillips Collection's elliptical stairwell to celebrate that institution's 90th anniversary.

For this show, Gilliam invited the 20 artists to create five monoprints each at the George Mason University School of Art's new bleeding-edge print studio, which opened in August 2009. Kreeger Museum Director Judy Greenberg, gallerist Marsha Mateyka and critic Claudia Rousseau then selected one representative monoprint by each artist. Part of the goal of the show was to mark the school's new studio.

Yet only one artist, Howard University art professor Al Smith, contributed a digital print. The others passed up the studio's newer printing technology, instead using the oil-based monotype. The results look very much like traditional painting. Most of the prints in the show stem from the genre known loosely as Lyrical Abstraction, a colorful and expressive but decades-old mode of painting influenced by Wassily Kandinsky (and highly associated with Gilliam).

E.J. Montgomery's "Celebration II" is a typical example: a bright atmosphere, marked by a cloudy blend of salmon pinks and lime greens, over which the artist's bold, scattered strokes seem to zip.

Sheila Crider's "Sunshine Boogaloo 2" is similar in composition but borrows its palette from the fiery end of the spectrum. Crider and Montgomery would have been professional artists when Lyrical Abstraction hit its stride.

A relatively younger artist, Joyce Wellman, also draws from that late Modernist mode with "Five," a screenprint featuring a muted abstract atmosphere and squiggly marks that could be arrows drawn in graphite.

Most of the prints in "In Unison" look as though they want to be oil paintings. If they were, they would be large - even vast. The totemic forms and characters in prints by two native Washington artists, Akili Ron Anderson and bk.iamART.adams, are cousin to mythical forms in the early, often wall-size paintings by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Contemporary painter Susan Rothenberg also has continued working in this arena, and at a similarly large scale. The mythological is well-explored territory for abstraction, and at a restricted scale, these forms come across as meek.

Even if they are the same size, not all of the works in "In Unison" are so humble. For "OPEN 3," Walter Kravitz (an artist whose works typically occupy whole rooms) took graphite, ink and charcoal to the surface of his oil-based monotype. The results are animated and could be the product of a woodcut or even an animation still, like the work of South African cartoonist William Kentridge, although it looks like neither. Instead, "OPEN 3" looks like a print.

Another standout is a screenprint by George Mason new media professor Edgar Endress that is drawn from a larger series called "Centropia." The print has figurative illustrations of well-met gentlemen, adventurers and soldiers whose heads have been replaced by those of birds. These figures could be Victorian visions of the falcon-headed Egyptian sun god, Ra. Wearing coats with tails and bearing muskets, Endress's bird men are arranged in an encyclopedic format. Scattered fragments of pronunciation text bolster the impression of a field guide.

Endress's screenprint is one of very few figurative works in "In Unison," and the only work that would have a home in today's popular print forums. The cutesy combination of nature and vintage dress would appeal to fans of Etsy, a Web hub for crafters. The print looks like something that might be sold on 20x200, a popular program run by New York's Jen Bekman Gallery, which sells fine-art prints in large editions at low costs ($20, $200 and $2,000).

Unlike the other painting-like prints in "In Unison," Endress's "Centropia" looks like a mass-produced print. That's a feature, not a flaw, especially given the DIY ethos that has emerged in Washington since its more painterly Color School days. It comes as no surprise that Endress, who was born in 1970, is at least a decade younger than most of the other artists in the exhibition.

To its credit, "In Unison" assembles a number of black Washington artists who were overlooked by the other Washington retrospective shows. Perhaps the value of "In Unison" is that it gets an older generation of artists out of their studios and into a new workshop environment. And the Kreeger Museum lends comfortable context to the show: Kandinsky and Paul Klee, whose paintings hang outside the exhibition, could be the show's patron saints.

But if the purpose of the print show was to give an opportunity to hallmark D.C. artists such as Yuriko Yamaguchi and Tom Green to truly experiment, then these artists failed to take it and run with it. A show that should find artists using the printmaking medium to move forward finds almost everyone looking back.