Every once in a while a new talent turns up on the art scene here and glows from the very start, usually slowly and quietly at first but with increased brilliance as the gallery seasons roll by.
Kevin MacDonald, 31, is such an artist and he has been warming the hearts of a growing band of collectors since his first one-man show at the Studio Gallery three years ago, when his black and white drawings of bits of empty interiors sold for $100, including the frame.
Among his early admirers was dealer Harry Lunn, who doesn't mess with Washington artists except on rare occasion. Lunn now buys - and subsequently sells - just about everything Kevin MacDonald brings him. The current price is $450 for large color drawings, which, needless to say, no longer come with a frame.
Lunn's lode of color pencil drawings by MacDonald, focusing on a series of new landscapes, his first, will go on view at Lunn Gallery next week. Serveral more still and quiet contemplations of interiors have been loaned to the Phillips Collection where MacDonald's first museum show opens today - an appropriate place, since the Phillips kept a jingle in the artist's pocket for 10 years by employing him as a museum aide. There is yet another concurrent show of smaller landscape drawings now on view at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, very modestly priced and, alas, nearly sold out.
Why all the fuss? What MacDonald does, with a mere fistful of colored and graphite pencils, is to make drawings people want to take home and live with, and which have all the impact and importance of a painting, but at a fraction of the cost.For this reason many artists have turned to making drawings in recent years, not drawings preparatory to something grander, but finished works in themselves.
MacDonald's spare, stripped-down subjects - rumpled beds and sofas, unoccupied restaurant booths and silent railroad stations - are all things and places he has seen, remembered and reduced to magical essences. Back in the studio with his memories, photos and sketches, he then recreates and reconstructs these essences with delicate overlays of imperceptibly pencilled color. Though always unoccupied, his tableux are mysteriously replete with implications of past and future occupancy. His debt to artistic ancestors like Edward Hopper is clear and acknowledged.
Beyond MacDonald's skill as draftsman and colorist, it is his ability to create an unspecific yet all-enveloping mood that so distinguishes his work. This he does largely through the use of light - always from a source within the picture, like Georges de la Tour, though with very different effect. The source, rather than a candle, might be a lamp, a flickering television set or daylight from a window.
In one bedroom scene, a distinction is even made between the incandescent bedside light and the fluorescent light emanating from a nearby bath. The ambigious glow of a streetlight in his first outdoor scene, a view of Colesville Road in Silver Spring, adds a touch of incongruity. It it day or night?It is not clear.
MacDonald is that rare species of artist who was Washington-born, bred and schooled, and though he knows he will have to deal with New York eventually, he says he does not care to do so yet, nor does he care to live there. "I don't even care to live in Washington," he adds. "I'm perfectly happy in Silver SPring."
Meanwhile, his art has made it to New York without him, and is included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Corcoran here.
Kevin MacDonald's show at the Phillips Collection is but one of three shows of drawings currently on view there, all of very high quality.
Washington artist and George Washington University art professor Constance Costigan is also showing her sensuous black and white "lead pencil paintings" wherein she builds up rounded, mountainuous and often seemingly erotic organic forms from layers of graphite.
These are what the artist calls "inner landscapes," all created from her inner vision. Entitled "Views from the Center," these drawings, sometimes in two and three parts, are meant to create a meditative space for the viewer in the form of a continuous landscape panoram.
Natalie Alper, the only non-Washingtonian of the three, is showing highly polished and almost too-sophisticated black and white drawings, wholly abstract and closely related to her color paintings now on view at Pyramid. In these drawings Bostonian Alper shades the background into horizontal zones or layers of varying depths, creating ambigious space, and then covers the entire foreground surface with an intricate snowfall of tiny marks, her own personal calligraphy, which resembles kufic at times. In the paintings, the color replaces the calligraphy, and takes on an almost breathing presence. Alper is good, but the work seems a bit facile.
Elsewhere in Washington, more new talents abound including Tim O'Kane, at Adams Davidson Gallery, 3233 P St. NW, whose drawings and egg tempera paintings make an interesting comparison with Kevin MacDonald O'Kane, too, draws the things around him with great virtuosity, solely in black and white at the moment, though his paintings show a fine way with color.
His angled, photo-realist studies of domestic interiors, or of his old Volvo station wagon, are instilled with a timeless, transcendant tranquility, and an other-wordly light, heightented by reflections in windows, a device MacDonald also uses to great effect. Here, too, only a silent breeze disturbs the solitude, pushing a curtain back from the window.
The big difference between them is that real people inhabit O'Kane's world - often the artist himself and his family. It is hard to imagine MacDonald or anyone else suddenly appearing in one of his iridescent atmospheres, though he has considered dealing with figures and no doubt will sooner or later. For now, however, O'Kane's mood is one of domesticated photo-realism, while MacDonald remains more mystical, and from an invented rather than a real world.
Though no new talent, veteran Washington painter Richard Dempsey is also winding up one of his strongest shows to date at Bader's, 2124 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. This series of abstract paintings on paper, many inspired by the lush landscape of Jamaica, is uneven, but several of the pieces come together beautifully, with highly expressive use of color and texture.