"Sea and Shore: 19th Centruy Views," now on view at Government Services Savings & Loan. 7200 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, is just the show for August. Outside the air is foul. The sidewalks cook, the traffic crawls, but the pictures in the bank refresh. They send the mind to sea.
This small show weaves a lovely spell. One thinks of tidal pools and seaweed, of the whine of wind in rigging and the slap of waves on wood. Americans love speed. The paintings here remind us that before we fell for space ships, plans and shining cars, we lavished our affection on ocean-going sailing boats, those admirable machines.
The exhibit stars the boat. Of the boat portraits displayed, many seem and formal. The lines are never slack, one sails never luff, the brightwork always gleams - for these are presentation pictures and they tend to flatter. The boats themselves seem stiff, but in the skies and waves around them the artists do suggest the chaos of the sea.
The skies are bright or glowering, the waves are green, or gray, or blue. The portraitists of boats, having done their duty to marine technology, could turn to picturesque effects, to sunrises and moonsets, to scudding clouds and mists, to reflections of the sky on the surface of the sea.
It is in its smaller details that this show is most evocative. A century ago sailing ships went everywhere. Behind their spars we see 18th-century Boston, 19th century Hong Kong, California, Maine. In James Gale Tyler's 1878 view of New York harbor (a painting in the bank's collection), we look past the sails, the cargo ships and tug-boats, to the still-unfinished towers of the Brooklyn Bridge.
There are people in these paintings, but they play supporting roles. Sometimes they are warriors (there are many scenes of warfare here), sometimes they are victims. Thirteen people in a lifeboat, some wearing Tam 'o Shanters, some wearing stovepipe hats, watch while their tall ship burns in William Ruthven Wheeler's "Great Lakes Marine Disaster."
Of the genre scenes on view, one, a sunny charmer by Samuel S. Carr, shows overdressed Victorians enjoying a Punch and Judy show on the beach at Coney Island. Another, an interior, shows a meal being served at the captain's table. These domestic visions contrast with pictures of the wild shore. One, an oil sketch by Albert Bierstadt, shows seals on the rocks off the San Francisco coast.
The most operatic, and most jingoistic, painting on display is Fred Pansing's 1898 view of the new steel gunships steaming off to fight the Spanish-American War. Their stacks belch thick black smoke. The age of sail is ending. This picture ends the show.
Arthur J. Phelan Jr., the chairman of the board of Government Services Savings & Loans, is a collector of marine scenes, and of the 29 works on view, 14 come from his collection. The bank itself owns nine of the paintings in the show. The bank, which has hired an art adviser, the painter Sidney Geberman and an art historian, Deborah Chotner, who researched the catalog that accompanies "Sea and Shore," is serious about art. It has done us all a favor with this pleasing little show.
(The same cannot be said for National Savings & Trust Co., which has installed a crummy little show of African curiosities in its Brightwood office, 6422 Georgia Ave. NW. Though banks these days believe exhibits help their business, you'd think this messy accumulation of newspaper clippings, Ashanti gold weights and books by Teddy Roosevelt would drive customers away.)
Of the photo galleries in town, none is more adventurous, and less given to the hype, than the Intuitiyeye, 641 Indiana Ave. NW. On view there through Sept. 7 are prints by Paul Tillinghast and Claudia Smigrod, both of whom are gifted, both of whom are young.
Their youth shows in their groping. In both these exhibitions one feels the artist find something personal and strong - find it and then lose it. It is as if they've been mislead by some chic conception of what art is supposed to look like.
Tillinghast, for instance, imitates his betters, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank. He doesn't do it badly, he does it rather well, but all of us have seen enough circus freaks and flags. His strongest pictures - one of a woman in a car, the other of a man reclining on the beach - stand out because they look like Tillinghasts. If he can free himself from emulating others, he will do just fine.
Smigrod is mislead not by imitation but be unnecessary tricks, the chopping and repeating of simple images that she should have left straight. She is at her best when she is least pretentious. Her quiet shots of bedrooms, walls and potted plants, and she has well mastered that trying, old technique.
The Phillips Collection is showing washes and drawings by Alan Fenton, an artist of the New York School. He studied with Adolph Gottlieb and Jack Tworkov, and he also learned from Mark Rothko. His work reflects these debts.
Almost all the Fentons shown explore one idea: the gradual transition from dark to light, from fullness to empitiness, from one color to another. His "Inherent Light Series Transition IV (Sung Yuan)" is composed of overlapping horizontal brushstrokes. Because his brush was loaded when he started, and almost empty when he started, and almost empty when he stopped, the field that he painted is darker at the top, lighter at the bottom.