Bethesda as Art Destination? The Town Has Its Limits.

(Osuna Art)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 26, 2007

Brooklyn on the Beltway it's not. Though it, too, is a major city satellite, sweet, manicured Bethesda knows full well it can't approximate Manhattan's neighboring borough for gallery and artist heft.

But that hasn't stopped the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the suburb's nonprofit promotional organization, from claiming an art scene for the town, with monthly gallery walks and a gallery district said to reach from Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue to the east and west and Rugby and Bethesda avenues to the north and south.

Declaring an arts district is a rare move in a post-gallery art world. With international fairs and the Internet moving and connecting artwork to collectors and the public, the gallery crawl is a dying phenomenon; only the densest corridors of Chelsea's 22nd and 24th streets see significant visitor numbers. In the District, gallerist Kathleen Ewing remarked that the Saturday foot traffic in her Connecticut Avenue space, which she gave up earlier this year, simply wasn't what it once was.

For the willing, Bethesda's galleries offer another kind of traffic -- the kind parked on clogged Wisconsin Avenue, which all the better galleries are on or near. With a good five-minute walk separating those galleries, navigating around concrete high-rises between them proves exercise for the waistline, if not for the soul. On a recent afternoon, four galleries offered work ranging from latter-day Color School abstraction to downright kitsch. Here's a taste:

Ramon Osuna's an old hand at District art, and his Osuna Art anchors the neighborhood. He began dealing privately around 1970 and moved to this Bethesda building lobby more than three years ago. Right now, recent canvases by James Hilleary, a lesser-known Color School painter who continues to work in abstraction, hang in a refreshing show dominated by the artist's keen experiments with color. Canvases decorated with loose vertical lines running down their lengths engage Gene Davis's well-trod territory, but they tread beautifully. Remarkably, Hilleary's canvases appear to emit light, not receive it.

Recently arrived on the scene is Heineman Myers. Opened last April, the gallery still struggles to find an identity, though local artists are often featured. Right now, Foon Sham's spare wood sculptures overfill the small space. Sham's formal work -- shapes evoking urns, totems and fertility figures -- requires space, not volume. Still, the pared-down forms recall veteran formalists like Martin Puryear, though Sham's hum and buzz from their jittery, uneven surfaces.

Gallery Neptune, which opened in fall 2003, occupies a modest, single-room space bordering a cluster of shops and restaurants. The gallery shows local glass artists, figurative sculpture and painting -- art that means well but rarely matters. The current show is hardly an exception. The show's title, "Jo' Ma Ma," might indicate art riffing on a slang insult. Instead, the title is derived from the first two letters of its three artists' first names. Well-examined conceits are not this gallery's strong suit.

Still, props are due to Joseph Barbaccia, who makes organically shaped objects -- slugs? snakes? -- covered in sequins. Well executed and just weird enough, they deserve a show of their own. Here, they're drowned out by the visual noise of Matthew Lawrence's glitter-, paint- and plastic-toy-encrusted paintings, which attempt a critique of consumer culture but slip on their venom. Stirred into the mix are Manuela Holban's works on paper evoking clowns and whorehouses in equal measure.

Where Neptune's program scatters, Fraser Gallery stays its course. The gallery has kept its commitment to figurative art (it also shows photography) for a great many years, including its early days in a tight Georgetown space. Such fidelity informs the current group show, "Narrative Painting," but its contents won't win new converts.

It's hard to pull off interesting figurative painting these days, and few here do. Overused strategies are the norm: John Winslow works his peculiar kind of surrealism, where figures defy gravity as if caught in a tornado. Haley Hasler riffs on painting's long history, here evoking the Judgment of Paris, a favored subject among Renaissance and baroque artists. Hasler transforms Paris's ill-fated choice -- it precipitated the Trojan War, after all -- into a spectacle on a canvas overfull with pattern yet nevertheless lacking a pulse.

James Hilleary at Osuna Art, 7200 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Tuesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., 301-654-4500, to Nov. 10.

Foon Sham at Heineman Myers, 4728 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, Wednesday-Friday 1-6 p.m., Saturday 1-7 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m., 301-951-7900, to Nov. 11.

"Jo' Ma Ma" at Gallery Neptune, 4901 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-718-0809, Wednesday-Saturday noon-7 p.m., to Nov. 3.

"Narrative Painting" at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., 301-718-9651, to Nov. 3.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company