William Bailey's still lifes, at the Fendrick Gallery, calm before they mystify. The magic of his paintings is cunningly delayed.
They are reassuringly well painted and comfortably conservative. The kitchen objects in them-crocks, pitchers, mugs, eggs-are unthreateningly familiar. They draw us into reverie. It is only then they loom.
Something stirs about them and they assume a sort of presence. The longer we look, the more they grow. They leave the table's scale to ally themselves with larger things, to standing stones or statues.
Bailey has learned how to transmute still life into landscape.
He alters points of view. While his table is in one space, the common objects on it occupy another. The table is seen from above, as if from a chair. The crockery appears head-on. The viewer has only to kneel on the floor, eyes at table level, to see what Bailey has done. Suddenly obedient to the strict laws of perspective, the plane becomes a field. The coffee cups and ashtrays stand about like statues. Abandoning their own domain, they now inhabit ours.
This should not suggest that Bailey is a trickster. His is honest work, and his skill is very high. His paintings, spare yet crowded, familiar yet removed, are clean and moving. He has given the still life the dreamlike quiet of the garden.
Bailey, who teaches at Yale, is also represented by a set of highly delicate figure drawings. I like his still lifes better. His show at Fendrick, 3050 M St. NW, closes May 12.
Few sights of the '70s are quite as sad as that of the once-brash '60s painter fading into formula, clutching the once-applauded look of his once-applauded art. Washington's Sam Gilliam has avoided all such pitfalls. His new paintings, now at Middendorf/Lane, 2014 P St. NW, are as free and fine as any he has done.
Some painters love the uncontrolled, the improvised and the wild. Others prefer order, formalities and precision. Gilliam does both. He is a choreographer of chaos.
No one could have planned in detail, beforehand, the thick encrusted paints, the unexpected colors (they ought to clash, but don't) that have been raked and poured across the canvases on view. And no one could have winged the austere geometries, the 30-degree angles, the parallels and squares, that give these untamed pictures their structured, quiet calm.
When Gilliam at first used masking tape and straight edge, order seemed to dominate (though, unlike the other Washington color painters, he was willing even then to let his colors flow and bleed).
When he later began to wrestle with his canvas, to wring it, drape it, fold it and hang it free in space, improvisation seemed ascendant, though even at his freest he gave his unstretched paintings a skeleton of strictness. In his large new paintings, for instance "Of Cities in Ancient Yellow," those two opposing strains, the ferocious and the measured, are in balance as they've rarely been before.
His colors, too, are in graceful order. A picture from across the room may seem blue or yellow, but the ruling hue is the sum of many. Gilliam has just sold a major 15-foot canvas to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. His small, crumpled, paper-and-string pieces seem to me too messy; his wall-hung paper collages seem a little flat, but none of them are done by rote. It is a sign of his gift and accomplishment that we can say of this show, as we have said before, that Gilliam has progresed. His exhibition runs through April.
Throughout his life, Fairfield Porter (1907-75) remained faithful to his own domestic, unpretentious vision. It is clear he loved to paint, and a mood of sun and happiness fills his exhibition at the Hull Gallery, 3301 New Mexico Ave. NW.
Porter painted what he liked to look to-his dog, the sky, the waves breaking on the beach, boats, New York streets, und the faces of his friends. The titles-"The Back Porch," "Afternoon, Maine," "Logs and Rocking Chair"-reflect the spirit of his show.
The best works here are seascapes ("Evening Gale," "Morning After a Storm") and one extraordinary, freely painted view of the artist's studio among autumn trees. Such subjects seem old fashioned, and Porter did not bow to fashion, but no 19th-century academic could have come up with such colors. They are full of air and sun. His figure paintings seem to me a little clunky, but this is, all in all, a handsome, happy show. It closes May 10.
Bill Dunlap, whose new work is at Adams Davidson, 3233 P St. NW, is a Southern regionalists with a difference. The peaceful scenes he shows us-fogs on the Blue Ridge, farm houses embraced by snow or shade trees, cows grazing in the meadow-seem to disappear when we approach to study the surfaces of his pictures. There, among the fence posts and the trees, we suddenly discover ruled lines, splashed paint, private notes and bits of type. When walking through a field, we do not notice only the rolling of the land and the tree line in the distance; we also see the tiny-the grasshoppers and twigs and grasses underfoot. The surface of a Dunlap offers similar surprise.
In the past, Dunlap's ruled lines, words and tricks sometimes diminished one's belief in the scenery he showed. What once seemed affectation has here been tamed. Dunlap's painting, always skillful, has steadily improved, and here the landscape rules the image as it should. His exhibition runs through April.
Mike Shaffer's show at Jack Rasmussen's, 313 G St. NW, is full of lattices and plaids. In all the works displayed, some large, on canvas and some small, one paper (one is a collage made of cut up $100 bill). Shaffer shows grids. Grid art has a long tradition. One thinks of Scottish weavers, Mies van de Rohe's facades, the works of Agnes Martin.
The beauty of a grid-and they can be beautiful-depends on small adjustments, on subtleties of proportion. It is in that domain that Shaffer's work succeeds-and fails. His small drawings, done with (sometines wavy) rulers, seem, despite their size, stronger and more assured than the freehand canvases hanging on the walls.
A grid can be indefinitely extended, an artist's crayon stroke can not. Shaffer's little works are neat enough to let their subtleties take over; his bigger ones seem sloppy. The show closes April 28. CAPTION: Picture, William Bailey's "Large Still Life, Rome"