Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion

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Editorial Review


By Mark Jenkins
Sunday, September 29, 2013

Alength of green tape runs down the floor of the Washington Studio School’s gallery, evoking the division of Reem Bassous’s native Beirut into Christian and Muslim zones during the 1975--90 Lebanese civil war. Conjuring a vivid sense of place is clearly important to the artist, who has taken some of her paintings out of frames and turned them into an installation. Near the end of the tape is a cluster of buildings made from painted, stained and singed paper, mounted on sticks and partially framed by a section of coiled metal fencing. It’s a devastating vision of devastation.

Bassous’s “Green Line” exhibition includes some abstract ­pieces, and drawings with flowers and fabric--like patterns whose only trauma is the occasional patch of fire damage. But the representation of Lebanon’s burned and battered capital, whether free--standing or within a picture plane, is central. Rendered in gray, brown and black, with hints of greenish blue, the facades show varying degrees of damage, but none seems untouched. There is no place of refuge within this mini--Beirut.

A former Washingtonian who now teaches at the University of Hawaii, Bassous was a girl during the height of the fighting. That may explain why she emphasizes the sheer physical sensation of living in a battlefield city. Children can hardly be expected to see beyond the experience of civil war to explain its causes. Leave that to the grown--ups who created this inferno.

Conceived by artists Cynthia Farrell Johnson and Helen Zughaib, “Our Lady of Perpetual Exhaustion” addresses the challenges of “lives that seem to be getting more complicated with each passing day.” The work of nearly 50 participants ---- mostly but not entirely women ---- is divided between the Watergate Gallery and Wesley Theological Seminary’s Dadian Gallery. It varies widely in both quality and fidelity to the theme.

The centerpiece of the Dadian show is Jackie Reeves’s “Self Portrait With Leopard Skin Oven Mitt and Loaded Brush.” The large painting--drawing--collage offers multiple views of the same busy mother, surrounded by children; the subject’s divided attention is expressed by the way the images are split across several hanging canvases. Zughaib has an impressively precise, detailed gouache at each location. At Watergate, the intricate “Le Reve de Sirin” shows a woman asleep with a cat; her long blue and fuchsia tresses turn into a bed of waves beneath her, while the trees above her are covered with blossoms that glimmer like stars.

Other highlights of the Watergate selection include Emily Lane’s “Another Dawn,” which captures insomnia in a montage of scrawled words, mottled paints and eyes that stare at the viewer; Alfredo Ratinoff’s “42 Icons to Relieve Exhaustion,” a grouping of classical--looking faces transferred lithographically to small glass squares; and Lauri Menditto’s “Plates on Plates,” which arranges rounded corners of license plates in colorful patterns atop Frisbee--like aluminum platters. The Dadian array is heavy on prints and other works on paper, including two in Geraldine Kiefer’s “Hawaiian Creation Chant Series,” which depict landscapes with swirling text; and Max--Karl Winkler’s “Before Sunrise ---- Gull Like,” a spare, evocative woodcut.

The aesthetic link between Helen Frankenthaler and Beth Kaminstein is evident directly inside the front door of Cross MacKenzie Gallery, where Frankenthaler’s “Contentment Island” hangs above Kaminstein’s “Islamorada Series: Aqua Bowl three rim dots.” The print’s sumptuous aquas echo in the stoneware bowl, whose rippling form also picks up the oceanic cues.

There are only two prints in this show, which is devoted primarily to Kaminstein’s Islamorada series. But the juxtaposition of the two artists is not just a coincidental alignment of bluish inks and greenish glazes. Both attended Bennington College in Vermont, and Kaminstein considers herself a disciple of Frankenthaler, who died in 2011. (The painter is often invoked locally because of her influence on the Washington Color School.)

While Frankenthaler stayed in the New York area, Kaminstein followed her affinity for watery shades and shapes to the Florida Keys. (That’s where Islamorada is.) Neither is restricted by geography, however. Frankenthaler’s “Weeping Crabapple” is an abstraction that draws on Japan’s Edo--period prints, with a hint of cherry blossoms in a pink--on--pink area. And Kaminstein’s “Islamorada  Series: Black Onyx” features metallic swipes that show as strong a feel for earth as sea.

The title of Kanika Sircar’s Waverly Street Galley show, “Text/Message,” suggests trendy, perhaps computer--oriented art. In fact, the local artist works in stoneware and porcelain, venerable materials to which she gives an ancient look. She does incise words and phrases in various languages into the pieces, some of them free--standing, others designed to hang on walls. But the mottled surface is more important than clear meaning, even when the ceramics take the shape of pages or books rather than flasks or boxes.

While there’s some English in the babble of chiseled text, the snatches of cuneiform seem more apt. Using slips and iron oxides, Sircar crafts weathered, richly metallic veneers that imply centuries of history. It’s as if the artist has invented her own little museum of antiquities, with objects that are painstakingly restored but still undeciphered. Rather than text or message, Sircar presents mystery, but also the rough beauty of earth tones and textures.