Who Needs Words? The Pictures Say It All.

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008

Looking at illustrations without text is like watching TV with the sound off. You're getting only half the package, right? Wrong.

The best illustrations stand alone, as an exhibition of work by area illustrators at the Edison Place Gallery ably demonstrates. Among the 112 pieces in "On the Wall: 14th Juried Exhibition of the Illustrators Club of Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia" (much of it created to go hand-in-hand with written material) are images that prove a storyteller doesn't always need words.

Take Robert Meganck's cover design for the 2007 CD "On a Wire" by the Richmond rock band Farm Vegas. Judged "Best in Show" by the exhibition's jurors, the illustration of a bird plummeting into flames from its telephone-line perch can't help but make you wonder what the music sounds like. That's just what good CD cover art is supposed to do: sell what's inside, unheard.

Done in an accessible, folk-art style that belies their digital origins, Meganck's 10 computer illustrations are among the show's highlights. In addition to "On a Wire," two more have been singled out for awards by the show's jurors, a group that includes illustrators, art directors and one adviser in the technical-medical-scientific field.

One of them, a poster for a production of playwright John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" at Richmond's Barksdale Theatre, won the gold medal for advertising. Another, a Christmas-themed picture called "Bah, Humbug!," took the top prize in the uncommissioned/promotional category.

Other work provides its own captioning, as with the cartoonish critter created by Annie Lunsford in "Voices in My Head." Its message? "Three out four voices in my head say . . . go for it!" (By the way, if that were a T-shirt, I'd buy it. As for William L. Brown's design for the "Lord of the Rings"-themed Dagorhir Battle Games Association -- and yes, this one is an actual, framed T-shirt under glass -- I think I'll pass.)

Many illustrations are (dare I say it?) just plain pretty. Phyllis Saroff's "Moose," for instance, as well as Matthew Frey's "Grizzly," "Western Tanager" and "Harbor Seal," are all fine examples of wildlife illustration. Cutting-edge contemporary art? Hardly. But they're easy on the eyes and a real treat for fans of John Audubon and his ilk.

In a few cases, the referenced texts should be quite familiar. "Aesop's Fable of the Frogs and the Well" by Dan P. Carr will call to mind, for many, an old story so well-known that it requires no retelling. The show's many celebrity portraits and caricatures (among them comedian Bill Cosby, actress Judy Garland, presidential candidate Barack Obama, baseball legend Hank Aaron and rapper-music-mogul Jay-Z) are by turns telling, insightful, wry and poignant.

Then there's stuff like "Asymmetric Metamorphosis of Paralichthys Dentatus." As for this scientific illustration, created by Ikumi Kayama for John Hopkins University, I suspect that no amount of accompanying text would ever make it, and a few other highly technical illustrations like it, comprehensible to a nonscientist.

Illustrator Lunsford's "Glutathione Story" is an exception to that rule. Commissioned by Emory University, it uses the artist's accessible, childlike style (and a comic book hero leveling a ray-gun-like "glutathione blaster" at such monsters as "cancer" and "diabetes") to make the point clear that we're looking at something used in the treatment of disease.

As a visitor was overheard commenting during a recent walk-through, "On the Wall" is an overwhelmingly "fun" show. Humor and whimsy rule. It can also, on rare occasion, be frustratingly opaque to the layman, but only when the work is targeted for a hyper-specialized audience.

Apart from those few examples of visual gibberish, the illustrations for the most part sing -- even without the accompaniment for which they were originally created.

On the Wall: 14th Juried Exhibition of the Illustrators Club of Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia Through June 27 at Edison Place Gallery, 702 Eighth St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown) Info:202-872-3396. Hours: Open Tuesday-Friday noon to 4. Admission: Free.

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