Ten years ago photographer Robert Stark had a one-man show at the Corcoran. Buoyed by that event, Stark set out for New York to sell his work, but after nine fruitless months he returned to Washington "convinced that I should give up photography."
He did, and instead began to draw and paint, settling into a spacious loft over the Ben-Bow Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue with his wife, painter Lucy Clark.
During the next five years, the studio became part of Washington art lore, for there Stark and Clark held several open studios, exhibiting the work of good young artists who, like themselves, could not get shows in commercial galleries here.
Alan Bridge, Enid Sanford and Mary Beth Edelson are among the many artists who showed there.
But with the feeling they were getting nowhere, they decided in 1975 to move to Union Dale, Stark's paternal home in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Traveling to Maine in the summer and to Charleston in the winter, he painted the landscape as he went, and occasionally a cityscape, often using the back of his Land Rover as his studio.
Stark's vehicle, unmistakable for the name STARK emblazoned on the Vermont license plate, announced his presence this week at the Phillips Collection where, precisely a decade after his Corcoran show, he is now exhibiting recent paintings and pastels. They are a joy to behold.
Roads from everywhere seem to be leading back to Washington this week. At least a half dozen other artists with earlier Washington connections have just opened shows, including Mary Beth Edelson (at Henri), Tom Green (at Jack Rasmussen), Stephanie Kirschen-Cole (at Diane Brown) and Jon Friedman (at Wolfe-Street). The commercial gallery scene here has indeed expanded and matured.
And so has Stark in the years since he was gone, as is indicated not only by his prematurely gray hair but by his extraordinarily beautiful oil pastel drawings and paintings, which also seem to be moving into a mature phase.
There are, by way of contrast and example, four early pointillist works in the show, one a view of the family farm, another the Masonic Lodge across from Stark's studio-home in Union Dale. Both scenes are defined by areas of colored dots, in the manner of Seurat, but say nothing beyond making a decorative statement of frankly trite visual fact.
Within the past year or two, however, Stark's pointillism has become finer, the dots smaller and closer together, the hues more subtle, the landscape itself seemingly more intimately experienced. Thus the artist's own pleasure in the sheer contemplation of the landscape has been conveyed to the viewer through the intensity of the painstakingly placed colored marks. It is only in such intensely personal use of this pointillist method that it makes any sense beyond pure stylistic gimmickry.
And at his best, Stark has produced more than one masterpiece for this show, usually in the medium of oil pastel. Using the texture of the gray-toned French papers to advantage, his views of Belmont Lake in Pennsylvania and of Brunswick, Maine, call up recollections of Monet and Van Gogh, and in other works allude to the composition of Cezanne and Augustus Vincent Tack, all of whom can be studied nearby. The show seems, heart and soul, to be at home among the paintings in the Phillips Collection.
The oils, too, seem to be moving in the same direction, though as yet they do not seem fully realized. Meanwhile, the show is pure visual delight. The handsome posters, reproducing two of his best works, will no doubt go out under many an arm for further pleasure and contemplation.
It seemed fitting to ask whether Stark saw any changes in Washington since his departure. "It would probably be just as disheartening," he said, "despite all the new galleries." Incredibly, he has still not found a dealer here, though, as he says, "it is not for lack of trying."
The exhibition continues through Feb. 10, by which time perhaps that situation will have changed as well.
Stephanie Kirschen-Cole, now of upstate New York, has taught at the Maryland School of Art and Design, and before that at the University of Maryland. She has also exhibited at Henri, but her new show at Diane Brown, 2028 P St. NW, her most extensive to date, is also her most impressive. It is among the first of several shows by women artists due to open between now and the end of the month, timed to coincide with the Women's Caucus for art and the College Art Association, due to meet here at the end of January.
Kirschen-Cole's art is hard to define, for she is both sculptress and collagist, as well as papermaker -- overall an artist of great range and originality. There are two large woodframe constructions which protrude from the wall, supporting, to various moody effects, subtly hued strips of canvas and delicate parachute silk. Another major piece, also made of stained, sewn-together canvas strips, hangs assertively in the hallway.
But the most popular works -- of which eight were sold the first day of the show -- will no doubt be the collages of handmade paper, stamps, postmarks and tags, all stitched or glued together, torn and cut into strikingly handsome compositions.
Upstairs, Jennie Lea Knight is showing several pastel and pencil landscapes, simplified into dove-like patternings to dramatic effect. One work entitled "No. 4 Creek Willows" is especially riveting. Through Feb. 3.
Just two doors away, at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW, three more women who make handmade paper are being featured, foremost among them Caroline Greenwald, who knows no peer when it comes to the poetic and expressive handling of handmade paper. On view are several framed pieces, notably the exquisite "Cloud Trails in Snow," and a hanging, sculptural piece entitled "Shelter." Though seen with increasing regularity in group shows here, the time has come for a longer look at the work of this artist, including her wordless books, of which none are on view here.
Also showing is Golda Lewis, who embeds everything from bits of colored glass to pieces of old chamois into her paper soup, often ending up with a visual mish-mash. The simpler, as in "Brown Surfacing," the better. The funky paper lunchboxes filled with paper food of a rather unusual sort -- pencil and pad sandwiches, for starters -- are by Lindsay Barrett, and make a refreshing change from the visual gorge of ceramic foods with which we have been overfed of late.
The spare, new calligraphic drawings and watercolors by John Dowell of Philadelphia, now at Barbara Fiedler Gallery, 1621 21st St. NW, are more authoritative, but not very different from drawings shown both at the Corcoran and at Lunn a few years back. What has changed is the fact that in 1973 Dowell began using his drawings as a means of abstract musical notation which he now actually performs with a group of musicians. Such a drawing-inspired concert will take place at the Hirshhorn Museum on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and will be open to the public, free. The music critics can take over from there.
As visual objects, however, these drawings continue to recall both Klee and Steinberg in their calligraphic forms, and are most satisfying as such. The same cannot, however, be said for the large, new oil paintings based on the same format, which seem to freeze and monumentalize Dowell's ideas without enlarging them in any way. Through Jan. 26.
Jon Friedman, Washington born and bred, and now living and showing in New York, is having his first commercial gallery show here at Wolfe St. Gallery, 1204 31st St. NW. His earlier work was shown at the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago.
Freidman is still experimenting, moving imaginatively through various cycles of work, the current cycle focusing on experiments with stacks of pure layered pigment. Several tall, free-standing columns transform pure color into tours de force of three-dimensional sculpture, the latest alluding in shape to the New York skyline.
Typically, Friedman also has been exploring other ways to use these layered slabs of pigment, often slicing them up and arranging the tiny slices into poetic, mosaic-like collages. These remain, for this viewer, the most intimate and satisfying works in this cycle, outside of the columns themselves. The artist's notebooks point to the richness of his imagination and to future visual adventures. Through Feb. 3.