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Island-Hopping In the Name of Art

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page C05

Painter Mark Dell'Isola divides his enviable days among studios in Bali, Guam and Palau, pushing his boat through waters so clear they may have been poured from Evian bottles. Though he grew up in the Washington area and went to college at the University of Maryland, Dell'Isola escaped to the South Pacific 21 years ago and assumed the classic castaway lifestyle -- fish dinner caught with a spear, corrugated metal studio built by hand, enviable tan. The artist's dedication to island living would put "Survivor's" pampered cast to shame.

Taking up residence on fantasy island allowed Dell'Isola to explore artistic ideas unmolested. Past canvases seemed impervious to fads, anchoring themselves steadfastly in mind-bending, abstract feasts of line and curve, parabolas, circles and shapes based on mathematical formulas (he favors the "golden section," the so-called divine ratio of 1.61803 to 1, in case you're curious). Given this set of interests, it came as no surprise that the artist's last Govinda outing, in 2003, offered trippy, tuned-out and essentially irrelevant 1960s-style psychedelia.

Mark Dell'Issola's Guam
Mark Dell'Issola's Guam
Mark Dell'Isola's "Guam," perhaps inspired by the artist's living a sort of fantasy island life, at Govinda Gallery. (Courtesy Govinda Gallery)

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What a pleasure, then, to visit his latest show and find work that tunes in. Consciously or not, Dell'Isola has tapped one of the more interesting visual conversations taking place in contemporary art right now. A marriage of cartooning and latter-day abstract expressionism, the style's exponent du jour is Heide Trepanier, who closed a successful show at Chelsea's Stefan Stux Gallery last Saturday. She can trace her lineage, in the recent past, to exuberant painters such as Inka Essenhigh and Matthew Ritchie. Each, in turn, has joined a Pollock-style drip, with its connotations of masculinity and physicality, to the nearly ironic and antiseptic conventions of comics and anime.

Dell'Isola gives us ribbons and loops and dots encircled in the dark outlines of cartoon convention. These are, in turn, painted over carefully plotted grids and arcs (that golden section business again). Holding firm to his psychedelic roots, his palette is ripe with bright tropical colors and passages of paint spelling out the color spectrum. Each massive, highly detailed piece posits the freestyle drip against a calculated underpainting. The result is something like a controlled explosion. The work's exponential size (the largest is 16 feet across) only heightens the impact. Strategic combinations of oil and acrylic that recede into the canvas, and shiny enamel house paint sitting right on top, underscore the push-pull.

I don't know whether Dell'Isola depicts microcosms, macrocosms or lost footage of "Ren and Stimpy" diced in a blender. If you don't mind, I'll just have to keep on looking.

Peter Charles at Irvine

Georgetown University art professor Peter Charles builds houses -- small, pitched-roof structures shaped like Monopoly pieces, minus the chimney. Most stand about eight inches high. Perforations for windows and doors let out flickers of the four-inch LCD television screens nestled inside.

Charles makes these homes out of humble stuff like welded steel, wire, plaster and Plexiglas (one "glass house" apes Philip Johnson's idea, if not its form). The high-tech flat-panel screens, of the type generally reserved for luxury items, broadcast standard TV signals captured by dangling wire antennas. Each house rests on its own small base that both secures the piece to the wall and conceals much of its circuitry. Remote controls will do the channel changing, which is left up to the owner/viewer.

Irvine Contemporary Art, and presumably the artist, touts this freedom to channel-surf as a privilege bestowed on the beholder, one that situates the owner as the final arbiter of the artwork. I don't buy it. Since what's playing doesn't have much bearing on what these pieces mean, any channel would be just as good as the next one; whether it's basketball or nightly news, the work isn't about what's on-screen but about the presence of the screen. If anything, I'd consider Charles a rather controlling artist: He casts us, again and again, as voyeurs. We walk from house to house peering in the apertures like a troupe of peeping Toms.

Freedom and control, though, emerge as secondary notions to what I read as a deeply melancholic message. As I moved around the gallery checking out what's on -- I arrived on a Thursday afternoon a little past 3 to see "General Hospital" on ABC and what looked like a talk show on Fox (none of these pieces has sound). As I stood there, it struck me how these televisions stood for real bodies and real people. (You know, the ones we interact with less and less these days.) In a world where e-mails are sent to co-workers sitting steps away, human-to-human contact has become a rare treat.

Though I'm no fan of television, Charles conjured some sympathy, from me at least, for our collective impetus to turn it on. The TV people have become our friends and family. And while there are endless reams of literature detailing the thorny philosophical and sociological implications of this very fact, for a moment I replaced disdain for empathy. The old boob tube, as its crude nickname suggests, is a necessary object of human desire.

Robert Brown

A refresher course on important mid- to late-20th-century artists, with some surprises, too. Robert Brown presents nearly 30 prints by a variety of greats. Those fond of the quirky and cartoony will enjoy Red Grooms's parade of figures; others enamored of the austere will enjoy Ellsworth Kelly's strict bands of color. Ed Ruscha, a longtime favorite of mine, has two works in the show. One is a text-based work of the kind you've seen before. The other is a knockout print using a technique that allows low relief. The wheat ears on "Clock" look freshly plucked from the plains.

Mark Dell'Isola at Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-333-1180, to April 9.

Peter Charles at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-332-8767, to April 16. Artist talk and reception to be held Saturday , 2-4 p.m.

American Icons at Robert Brown Gallery, 2030 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-483-4383, to April 9.


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