By Mark Jenkins
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Landscape maestro Wolf Kahn, a German--born artist who fled the Nazis as a child and arrived in the United States in 1940, is best known as a painter whose realism is informed by color--field abstraction. But of the current paired Kahn exhibitions, oils and pastels at Addison/Ripley Fine Art and prints at Neptune Fine Art, it’s the print selection that shows him at his most assured.
The artist has employed various printmaking techniques, including drypoint, etching and aquatint. The show’s oldest items, two crosshatched 1969 images of barns, are lithographs. Many of the pictures are monotypes, drawn directly on a plate and printed a single time. These have a soft texture akin to pastel, which Kahn also used to finish “Mount Pinatubo,” a lithograph that depicts the Philippines volcano in suitably igneous tones.
Kahn usually paints scenes closer to his New England home, and he doesn’t need brash colors to hold the eye. “Springfield Memorial Bridge” is black and white, and more precisely rendered than the color pieces. And one of the show’s marvels is “How Low the Mighty Have Fallen,” a lithograph of lavender tree trunks ---- all but one upright ---- against a pale--green field. The spring--like colors are hardly literal, but the sense of a hushed, moist forest is altogether real.
Now 86, Kahn is still working steadily but with mixed results. The 30 pictures at Addison/Ripley, about half of them from 2011--13, are notable primarily for their vivid use of color. Often depicting stands of trees, the compositions pit vertical lines against areas of bright foliage, both in unexpected hues. In “Magenta and Silver,” the backdrop is the former color and tree trunks the latter, and reddish purple also grounds “Yellow Top Yellow Ground.” The brush and line work is less effective, however. If Kahn’s balance of realism and abstraction hasn’t really changed, his eye now seems keener than his hand.
Crowded with people and horses, as well as a stray zebra, Lauren Boilini’s epic canvases have the scale and drama of classical painting. The Maryland artist’s “Rabid Habits,” at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery, consists of three major works and many sketches, including a few done in ink. A gallery note places the big canvases in the lineage of Rubens and Caravaggio; their teeming compositions further suggest Bosch and Brueghel.
Boilini’s drawings aren’t simply preparations for the large paintings. Even the three centerpieces employ a sketchy style that resembles that of pop--art fellow traveler Larry Rivers, who sometimes deconstructed pre--modern pictures. Boilini adds pencil and pastel strokes atop the paint, and her palette tends toward the pastel. These paintings offer a contemporary view of tumult: chaotic and fragmented, yet well--lighted.
Michael Sellmeyer’s style, by contrast, is heavy on black, brown and gray, with mere touches of brighter hues. It’s slightly surprising to learn that he uses printer toner in the work on display in “Paintings, Drawings, Prints, That Mostly Go Together,” upstairs at VisArts’ Common Ground Gallery. The local artist likes things dark and messy, and the toner complements his other favored media, which include ink and charcoal. Spontaneous and unsystematic, Sellmeyer’s abstractions can appear ominous, as if they’re the residue of explosions. Yet the pictures, inspired by nature’s haphazard shapes and surfaces, can also achieve a serene quality.
Spurred by a vision of a figure she saw standing at the foot of her bed, Kesha Bruce has executed nearly 200 mixed--media paintings of creatures she calls “The Guardians.” The Iowa--bred artist, who lives in France, draws on African iconography for these pictures, some of which are at Morton Fine Art. Most of the figures are ghostly, often faceless, like things seen in a half--awake state. Such guardians as “Thanos,” its blue head atop an elongated neck, evoke Africa’s traditional sculpture and decorative motifs. “Kiska,” its head apparently on fire, seems an outright hallucination.
Yet the specters become palpable because of their hot, earthy colors and forceful brushwork. Indeed, the vigor suggests another tradition altogether: abstract expressionism. While the pictures are clearly representational, they’re also exercises in sheer painting. Areas of clean, bold color abut mottled regions; scraps of collaged fabric and textile--like circular patterns contrast the figures’ streamlined forms. Brown’s guardians may be dream--time wisps, but her painting makes them solid and potent.
In her colorful prints and paintings, Helen Zughaib combines Arab and Indo--Persian motifs with images from many other worlds. The Beirut--born D.C. artist’s current show at Syra Arts, “Soaring Spirits,” includes views of Washington’s best--known monuments overlaid with mosaic--like patterns that suggest the grand buildings of the Middle East.
The selection includes some pictures that have been exhibited before, on themes that include dreams, the roles of women and the history of Western art. What’s new is a series of birds, exquisitely detailed in vivid hues and curved lines. These sinuous creatures have elements of peacocks but also suggest phoenixes and even dragons. The hint of east Asia is typical of Zughaib, who upholds Arab pictorial customs but places them in an expansive context.