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Blake Gopnik: Fall gallery season full of under-the-radar gems

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

This fall, it's quiet times in Washington's art world: No big names or blockbusters are heading our way.

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That could be a big plus. Do we really want to battle crowds in order to discover, once again, that Rembrandt's a half-decent brushman or that Renoir could handle color?

There's surely more artistic value added in seeing work we don't already know.

We could take in the portraits of the bizarre Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose canvases build faces from fruit. (Sixteen of them are coming to the National Gallery on Sept. 19.) Or the paintings of Lois Mailou Jones, a Washington artist and longtime teacher who was one of the first black women to achieve success in art. (They're getting their first retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from Oct. 9.)

Further from our Western comfort zone, on Oct. 23, the Sackler Gallery will offer us the great Islamic miniatures of the Shahnama, Persia's epic "Book of Kings."

Photography fans could head off the beaten track, and back in time, by looking at a Phillips Collection show, launching Oct. 9, that explores the soft-focus imagery of the pictorialist movement, which flourished early last century. A show opening Oct. 31 at the National Gallery will look at how the earliest photos from that same movement, shot in Britain in the mid-19th century, related to the fine art of the Pre-Raphaelites, a community of painters also based in Britain at that time. It will pair the photos of Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron with works by painters such as William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

But maybe the most exciting, courageous thing we could do this season would be to leave behind anything at all that's been hallowed by time, and head for the art of today. There will be lots of it on offer.

On Sept. 22, the Baltimore Museum of Art is presenting a project by a New York duo collectively known as Guyton \ Walker. At the last Venice Biennale, they produced a room that was something like a cross between a messy artist's studio and a booth at a trade fair for ad agencies. Their work manages a rare marriage of the raucous and the slick, the zany and the calculating.

On Sept. 25, the National Museum of the American Indian will be pulling out its holdings in contemporary native art. At its best, the work of today's aboriginal peoples questions everything we think we know about their culture and history -- and some of what we think we know about ours.

Launching that same day at the Sackler Gallery, some of those same questions of identity should come up in a major survey of the Indonesian-born Dutch artist Fiona Tan. She often works in video, usually projected at a grand scale. Her slow-burn art is always subtle and often moving. It has touched subjects ranging from archery and its meaning for young women in Japan to what's left of the Asia that Marco Polo saw.

On Oct. 17, the Baltimore Museum of Art will take us back to a crucial beginning for the art of today -- to the work that Andy Warhol made in his last years. The rest of October takes the art lover even further afield, with a series of shows celebrating the little-known art scene in Argentina, a country that turns 200 this year. The main event launches Oct. 21 with the Hirshhorn's retrospective of the artist Guillermo Kuitca, whose attractive map- and architecture-based paintings made a big splash in the 1990s but haven't had as much play since. The Smithsonian's Ripley Center will give context for Kuitca's works by expanding our view to the art of 22 of his compatriots. And the Art Museum of the Americas will focus on just a pair of them: Cristián Segura, who still lives in his homeland, and Sergio Vega, who left in 1991 and has since been working in the United States.

I can't guarantee the quality of any of this art, since most of it is new to me. That's why I'm eager to see it.

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