‘Sigil’ art exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine Art


“First One” anchors the exhibition “Sigil,” a round-up of sometimes cryptic art at Addison/Ripley. (Tom Green)
June 6, 2013

One painting dominates “Sigil,” an exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine Art spotlighting eight Washington artists, including veterans and rising stars.

At roughly six feet tall and 10 feet wide, Tom Green’s canvas — covered with rows of hieroglyphic-like symbols against a vibrant red background — is so large that curator Carol Brown Goldberg wasn’t sure it would fit into the gallery. But the painting by the acclaimed artist (who died last year of Lou Gehrig’s disease) was the first piece she knew she wanted in the show. Titled, appropriately enough, “First One,” it in some ways sets the tone for the entire show. Visual harmonies with Green’s richly symbolic work reverberate throughout the gallery, but there also are intriguing notes of dissonance.

Superficially, artists W.C. Richardson and Andrea Way seem most closely aligned with Green. Not because their work looks the same. It doesn’t. Even in his smaller paintings, Green communicates with a vocabulary of abstract signifiers that are almost like an illegible language. The way that Richardson and Way speak through their densely patterned art is closer to mapping than to writing. Yet all three artists rely on complex systems of markmaking — a series of codes that are not easily cracked but that hint at deep mystery.

Furthest from Green stylistically are Maggie Michael and Robin Rose. Michael’s “Lick,” for instance, features thick puddles of latex house paint in an evocation of what Jackson Pollock might have made had he used a ladle to spoon paint onto a horizontal surface instead of flinging it. Two acrylic works by Rose — the blood-red “Sanguine” and the lushly colored triptych “Elemental Nobility” — are studies in pure, almost featureless color from an artist best known for his luxurious pigmented-wax works.

So where are the symbols?

Right in front of you, as it turns out. What’s more iconic than color and gesture, each of which is on flamboyant, almost ritualistic display in Rose’s and Michael’s works? Their paintings speak to the unattainable sublime.

Joseph White’s paintings and Renee Butler’s shadow boxes, on the other hand, are grounded in something more mundane. In deceptively simple works, White depicts the sun-drenched balconies of Miami, where the couple has a second home, while Butler uses glass — shards of a broken window or panes of frosted glass — to evoke simple X and O shapes.

Although their inspiration seems drawn from ordinary life, their subject matter is light itself.

Joan Belmar’s work is probably the hardest to categorize in “Sigil.” The Chilean-born artist incorporates the image of a hobby­horse in the sardonic “Where’s John Wayne #2 (red).” But his other works are far more subtle, featuring patterns that evoke human cells, tribal markings and other abstract, almost primitive power symbols.

Like his “Sigil” peers, this artist has figured out that meaning is most tantalizing when it remains just out of reach.

The Story Behind the Work

“Sigil” is the first attempt at curation by Carol Brown Goldberg, an artist whose own work also is heavily suggestive of unseen forces. The list of the show’s eight artists came to her in a flash, she says, well before its theme began to take shape.

The show’s odd title was suggested to her by gallery owner Christopher Addison, who knew the word “sigil’ from the HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” where it refers to an emblem or icon — say, a lion or a stag — used as a family crest. Goldberg, who had never watched the show, looked it up and was intrigued by definitions hinting at another, broader meaning. Rather than a badge defining membership in a group, the word called to mind a visible manifestation of the invisible.

It’s a term that evokes, for Goldberg, an “edge” state — a space between meaning and mystery, between language and silence, and between knowing and unknowing. Though that sounds a bit like what the Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” Goldberg resists that phrase’s pejorative implication, preferring to describe it as making peace with ambiguity.

— Michael O'Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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