WOW! IT'S going to jump out and eat me!"
That was Allen "Big Al" Carter's comment on his painting "Red Sap," which will be menacing viewers until Aug. 19 at the Rowe House Gallery on Wisconsin Avenue. After 10 years of prowling the pavement on P Street and elsewhere, it is the first Washington show.
"Look at this." The huge artist let his huge hand stray in front of the mouth of his sculpture, also named "Red Sap"; and after imitating a vicious gobble, he screamed, "Ahhhhgggg!"
He was clowning, to be sure. But his flamboyant attitude is one of the things that have kept Allen Carter, 32, struggling night after night in obscurity in a small basement in Arlington, supporting himself by teaching in the local schools. He's always believed that being true to his art was more important than being part of the sophisticated, ritualized, sales-oriented art world.
"Wow! When I finally got this painting out of the basement. Wow!" His enormous arms almost embraced his work. "I saw this color was for real. Wow!"
Allen is one of Washington's fauves - French for wild beast. They are not to be confused with the capital-F Fauves, a wild bunch of painters who rattled the Paris art scene early in this century, and whose work is now pretty much a museum-and-textbook affair. The latter-day fauves are legion: For every artist with an impressive resume and art-market savior-faire, there are dozens whose credentials don't go much beyond what they put on the walls. Many of them live in places like Adelphi, Glen Echo or Arlington. Many of them perceive the Washington art world as Carter does: a remote and often incomprehensible place "across the river" - a matriarchy of middle-class women who may love Fauves, but don't cotton to fauves.
Walter Hopps, curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts and an avid student of the Washington art scene, estimates that there are at least 6,000 serious artists in the area.
"Of those," Hopps said, "maybe 100 are handled by the commercial art galleries here. Of the rest, I'd say that at least 1,000 are disenfranchised because the art establishment doesn't take them seriously - because they are young, or black, or poor, or because they are married women living in the suburbs.
"The art world encourages those types of people not to take themselves seriously."
But if the Washington art world is foreign to "those types of people," the fauves are equally hard for gallery owners to understand.
As one P Street dealer put it, "If we are going to try to deal professionally with an artist's work, it makes it a lot easierif the artist handles himself professionally. Of course, you make an exception if the work is exceptional."
Carter talked about handling himself, and the frustration he's had with people "across the river."
"Sometimes at night I'm in my basement thinking, "What am I doing here?" But I got to work. I got that energy. It has to come out. There's no reason for me to say, "No, I can't do that," because of all those people on P Street that don't know anything."
Carter tells a colorful, if exaggerated, story that sums up his attitude:
"I was at one gallery and the old dealer is curled up in a corner. This dude is washing the window and she says, "Stop that squeegee! Look at that! You're a painter! I could give you a show here!" And the dude says, I'm no painter," I could have died laughing - all these artists in town wanting a show, and she says this window-washer is a painter!
"But when I asked her for a show, she said, "Oh, we're booked up for 10 years."
"So, I said, "Well, how about a show then!" And she looked at her calendar: "Oh, we're booked up for 20 years.""
Carter admits the hyperbole. And in defense of gallery dealers, in most things Carter doesn't compare favorably at all with the Ideal Washington Artist.
Take the matter of dress. Carter doesn't wear tailored shirts, his top three buttons are never unbuttoned and he doesn't have blue jeans with paint stains or at least a designer label. At his first Washington opening, he wore a black suit coat, black tie, white shirt and checked pants.
Take the matter of conversational savvy. Rather than talk about who's who at what gallery in New York, or which galleries are rumored to supply their stable of artists with cocaine, Carter talks about how it amazes him that so many people call themselves artists when they can't even draw a figure.
Take the matter of price. "I don't believe art and money have anything to do with each other!" Carter says much too vehemently for the usual gallery dealer. And remember "Big Al" Carter is huge and most gallery dealers are small.
Take the matter of a studio, to which gallery dealers are wont to bring prospective buyers. Carter does not have a loft. He does not have 1,000 square feet littered Zenly with works in various stages of completion; he doesn't even have zany post cards and reproductions of the Old Masters tacked to his wall.
Carter has a basement, a small basement.
"This is my heaven," he tells visitors matter-of-factly, "I'll be down here till 6 in the morning painting, painting, painting."
Everywhere in that small basement is the marriage of Big Al to Reality. Against the house's gas heater is a series of cartoon paintings.
"I do cartoons for kids. They come in here and say "Al, do a cartoon," and I'll do one and if they want it, it's theirs.
Back against the far wall are Roualt-like paintings. Above the heater are rolls and rolls of drawings. Across from the heater are portraits with the faces always with dignity swirling out into a wild line and color.Sculptures hang from the ceiling. In the middle of the room is the work of the moment, and it's not a piece inspired by close study of what's making it in New York:
"I found this yellow paint in a garbage can, and look at that color! Wow! I got to use it in everything!"
Upstairs in the house where he lives with his wife, daughter and mother (who will tell you that Allen started painting the day he was born) every wall, every corner, upstairs and down, is filled with his art.
Old school ties got Carter his first Washington show. When Michael von Welzenbach took over the Rowe House Gallery this year, he remembered the artist with whom he went to Wakefield High School. The show comes in the nick of time: In a couple more years, Carter's whole house might have burst with his paintings.
Folks who love art as a front for interior decorating need not visit the gallery. Inspectors of framing and backing and devotees of matchable monotones will be appalled at Carter's work.
But those who appreciate fauves, who love art that lets their imaginations run wild, will plan to stay awhile.
Trained at the Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design, Carter is both an abstract colorist and a and a figurist. The tension between the two is what makes him unique.
In "Faces" the profile from one of his woodcuts entitled "My father the King" marches along in orderly fashion, and then it explodes into a wild red "Ha!"
Carter may never be the type of artist that the gallery dealers and curators of Washington will be able to package and send to New York. He's too much of a fauve. CAPTION: Picture, Big Al Carter in his basement studio: "This is my heaven." By Tom Allen - The Washington Post