A fair to middling show of contemporary southern photography has begun a two-year tour at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Jonathan William, the poet and publisher who overwrote its catalogue and picked the 11 artists in it, has called the exhibition, "I shall save one land unvisited." His title doesn't fit.
The exhibition's mood, despite some striking images, is tired, safe, familiar. "I shall have one land unvisited" drags us through a pair of lands all of us have visited many times before.
One - the first glimpse of a field hand, a rotten barn, a country road, tells you that you're there - is the land that one might call the photogenic South. Photographers who have been angered by injustice and moved by Walker Evans have been portraying it for nearly 50 years.
The other land is that of official art photography and is comparably well trod. Famous pictures taken by famous Robert Frank (his baptisms, his veiled cars) have been imitated openly by artists in this show. Some of them have studied, too, the styles of Lee Friedlander, the hard-edge grids of Lewis Baltz, John Clarence Laughlin's heavy southern spookiness, while others here pay homage to the dreary tricks - the unnecessary blur, the surrealist college - that so many young photographers believe signify High Art.
How rare it is these days to see a show of art photography free of such conventions. A mood of deja vu stalks this exhibition, but there are pictures that pack a real punch.
A nude by Lyle Bonge that reclines half-submerged in water at the foot of a sand dune is striking. The suffering in the portraits on display by Alex Harris and Paul Kwilecki has not been seen with artistry but still it stops the heart. No one will pass by Kwilecki's picture of a sideshow ("See Her Change From a Live Girl to a Live Gorilla") without looking twice.
Harris and Kwilecki hook us with devices that are tried and true, if wholly unoriginal. Sally Mann and John McWilliams show landscapes that are more subtle and elegant. Their art enthralls the eye rather than stab the heart.
It is possible to argue that if a chimp took, say, 10,000 pictures with a camera one would come out right. The half-truth of that argument is conjured here by Robert C. May and Bart Parker. May shows us half a dozen blurs, one of which, a swirl around a tree, is a lovely picture. Parker makes collages of extraordinary silliness and then shows us a shot of dogs racing by a lake at twilight in which everything is right.
John Menapace, a hard-edge formalist, is far more consistent. So is the late Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who was, in addition, a poet of a sort. I also liked "Cow Rags" by Guy Mendes, Mann's graveyard and McWilliams' smokestacks in Atlanta.
This show does not suddenly reveal the New South, or introduce us to 11 new stars, or change the standards we bring to photographic exhibitions in any major way. Too much of the work displayed is predictable, provincial. What makes it worth a visit is that here and there it does present photographs that click, that reach out and grab us. "I shall save one land unvisited: 11 Southern Photographers" is supported by a grant from the Hanes Corp. It will remain on view at the Corcoran through Sept. 25.
A charming exhibition of 18th and 19th-century American "naive" paintings has just gone on view in the new East Building of the National Gallery of Art. They come from the collection of Col. and Mrs. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Most of them have been on view in the gallery's original building for many years.
Col. and Mrs. Garbisch began to buy their "primitives" (that word is out of fashion now) in the early '50s, and since then they have formed what the gallery calls, "the most comprehensive and important collection in the field." For those who like that sort of innocent and folksy art, this show will be great fun.
For one thing, it is full of the most delightful beasts, squirrels and cats and dogs, polar bears and birds. There are more than 40 horses here, some of them with wings.
One is also moved by the way these earnest painters attempted to pay homage to the high formalities of European art. In the portraits here the sitters tend to pose before Arcadian landscapes and heavy velvet drapes. Liberty, Aurora and George Washington (on horseback) are touchingly cartooned here as if they were Greek gods.
One reason for this art's increasing popularity is that its patterns are so strong. Geese fly in perfect Vs. Waves march on the sea in military order. Once a naive painter has learned to paint an apple tree (paint a green blob, add red dots), he goes on and on until he has an orchard.
The artists represented here - some anonymous, some famous (Ralph Earl, William Chambers) - knew how to please their viewers. In general, they offered strong patterns and bright colors, cute animals and children, detail, good stories, occasionally ghosts. "Naive" seems an awkward word for painters so successful. They knew what they were doing. Their paintings charmed when new, and they do so today.
Continuing its odd trend of offering the public peculiar minor shows, the Phillips Collection has selected for its latest the work of Philip C. Curtis, a so-called magical surrealist who lives in Arizona. He shows us ladies playing cards with drapes over their heads, firemen in holes, empty ballrooms, deserts, and folks who walk about with their heads in paper bags.
His people tend to dress in the fashions of the 1890s. They often pose in solitude clutching eerie props, a trumpet, a pool cue, a bouquet. Curtis is, it's clear, fond of the enigma.
He does not draw particularly well - his elongated figures tend to look like dolls - but he paints with care. His oils have a mellow gleam that do not bend to urban fashion. They look much like antiques.
This exhibit on the whole is quirky, heartfelt, gentle. Curtis belongs somewhere between Rene Magritte (from whom he borrows the painted stage flat, the bowler, the umbrella) and the cartoonist, Edward Gorey. Gorey, too, is often silly, but he is so on purpose.