Galleries: ‘Characters of Chevy Chase,’ ‘Local Color’ showcase hometown artists

August 4, 2011

Washington is not home to a lot of capital-A artists, whose personalities (and self-marketing mechanisms) are as big as their work. Such swaggering figures are especially unlikely in a show representing the upscale, near-suburban precincts of Chevy Chase. But Zenith Gallery’s “The Character of Chevy Chase” doesn’t feature the dabblers, even if some of the participants pursue (or pursued) their art part-time.

Although most of the art is representational, there are no views of the Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights metroplex. The majority of the exhibition’s landscapes are by Kim Abraham, who is inspired by the seashores of Ireland. His coastal vistas have an ephemeral quality, in part because he often works in oil paints that are diluted until they take on the delicacy of watercolors. Others are painted more thickly, occasionally with stories carved into the paint in a runic script he devised (and whose content he declines to reveal). Abraham’s stacking of sea, shore and sky can verge on Rothko-like abstraction, especially when the format is extremely horizontal. But the inspiration for the painter’s liquid-looking seascapes is always clear. “I love water,” he says, “because it has so many identities.”

There’s also an aquatic quality to Harmon Biddle’s beautifully realized Murano glass sculptures, which often feature translucent eggs in shades of blue. In addition, she presents one ovoid in white, nestled in a green cucumber-like form, and another in yellow, at the center of wavelike blue forms. The artist’s undulating glass is the main attraction, but a few prints offer a one-dimensional take on her blue-egg motif.

Although the organizing principle is geographical, several of the artists have stylistic affinities. The canvases of Deborah Brisker Burk, Joan Samworth and the late Lou Kaplan are expressionistic, drawing on early-20th-century European painting and (in Kaplan’s case) Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning. There are many portraits and still-lifes among the three artists’ pieces, but some are abstract. Kaplan’s loose, exuberant style yields to a moody, grid-based approach in “Bulls and Bears” and Samworth’s landscapes, like Abraham’s, sometimes reduce scenery to its elemental shapes.

Burk’s paintings on canvas and paper occasionally incorporate bits of fabric, which link them to Carol Gellner Levin’s sculptural work in burlap and terra cotta. Burk’s life-size sheeplike creatures add another rustic note to this urban shopping-mall exhibition.

Encouraged by Chevy Chase Pavilion’s management to turn the place into a sort of art park, Zenith proprietor Margery Goldberg is not merely showing artwork in her space on the mall’s top floor. She’s also distributing pieces throughout the building’s public areas. Some of the “Chevy Chase” exhibition hangs outside the gallery, and anyone who goes looking for it will encounter work by other Zenith artists as well. The art doesn’t fundamentally alter the nature of the place, whose character is defined by the likes of J. Crew and Starbucks, but it does offer some pleasant surprises.

At Gallery plan b

“Local Color” is a natural title for a survey of neighborhood artists, but Gallery plan b’s current exhibition takes the phrase literally. The exhibition features hot hues — the top local color, it seems, is red — and views that will be recognizable to most Washingtonians. Local? Most of the scenes depicted in these paintings, photographs and prints are within walking distance of the gallery, at 14th and Q streets NW. Included are visions of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, as well as buildings that are almost as iconic in hometown-D.C. circles: Ben’s Chili Bowl, Barrel House Liquor and the Wonder Bread factory.

Decorative but hip, most of this work seems designed for the walls of the latest crop of condos being planned along 14th and U streets. Indeed, one of the artists, Charlie Gaynor, is a photographer who doubles as a real estate agent. His images of vivid graffiti and weathered facades may alienate some potential apartment buyers, but they depict the sort of urban texture that appeals to other would-be inner-city residents.

The paintings range from Ron Donoughe’s straightforward, mildly impressionistic views of Logan Circle landmarks to Joey P. Manlapaz’s large canvases of street scenes, which focus on such inanimate inhabitants as vending machines and newspaper boxes, as well as a threatened breed: pay phones. Steven Stichter’s woodblock prints and Isabelle Spicer’s small paintings observe the same general territory.

Photographer David Ballinger depicts some of the city’s best-known buildings, but his approach is to multiply and abstract them: His Capitol and White House are twinned and flipped to negatives, imbuing them with a ghostly quality that doesn’t quite overcome the images’ picture-postcard quality. The closest thing to a first-person piece is also a streetscape: David J. Kalamar’s “Self Portrait” is a painting of a photograph that includes the artist’s shadow in the foreground.

Although Gaynor’s pictures are heavy on crimson, they’re topped by Luis Gomez’s redder-than-thou photos, which feature a skateboard logo, band jackets and a wig, all in shades of scarlet. Wonder Bread contributes to the riot of color. One of Gaynor’s photos contrasts the abandoned factory’s red sign with the weathered tones of the building’s facade. Michael D. Crossett’s prints include a black-and-white look at the same structure, cleverly splashed with the red, blue and yellow dots long seen on the brand’s bags.

Crossett’s work is the group’s densest and most interesting. His use of primary colors and photo-transfer technology recall such 1960s pop artists as Andy Warhol, while his montaged images suggest Robert Rauschenberg. He even invokes the third member of that troika, Jasper Johns, by superimposing a target on some of his prints. Yet Crossett’s style is tidier than that of those precursors, and it’s not surprising to learn that he has a degree in marketing and advertising. The art currently at plan b may be more “downtown” than Zenith’s, but it’s no edgier.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

The Character of Chevy Chase

on view through Sept. 10 at Zenith Gallery, Chevy Chase Pavilion. 5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-783-2963. zenithgallery.com

Local Color

on view through Aug. 28 at Gallery plan b. 1530 14th St. NW. 202-234-2711. galleryplanb.com.

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