"Images of the '70s: Nine Washington Artists," the long-awaited, much-debated "realist" exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a raggedy success.
With this her maiden effort, local curator Clair List has fulfilled her major mission. She has made the Corcoran again seem interested and interesting and locally important. Not since the hectic heydays of Jim Harithas and Walter Hopps has so much electricity, gossip, praise and scorn arced between the gallery and the community it serves.
List says she has visited 150 studios since she took her job in April. She did so, it was rumored, as a young, impassive judge out to build or break local reputations.
The nine nonabstract artists whom she, at last, selected -- Michael Clark, Manon Cleary, Joan Danziger, Rebecca Davenport, Jennie Lea Knight, Kevin MacDonald, Joe Shannon, A. Brockie Stevenson, Genna Watson -- include some of the best, and some of the best known, artists of this town.
Their show looks pretty good. Here it soothes, there it shocks. It ought to be a hit. It is only when one starts to ask why they are together here -- why List picked that one, what point is being made -- that her exhibition seems arbitrary, frayed.
List writes that she chose the nine to "highlight" Washington's "second generation 'academic realists.'" But Michael Clark used to be an abstract artist, in fact a Washington Color Painter. Joan Danziger was never an academic or a realist. Jennie Lea Knight was known best here for abstract sculpture, and Genna Watson isn't a second-generation Washington anything. How they fit beneath List's rubric is a question left unanswered by the objects in the show.
Her title, too, misleads. Perhaps List should have called it "Nine Artists I Admire," because her "Images of the '70s" ("this survey of the last ten years") is in fact no such thing. There is only one Cleary, only one Watson, and no Knights or MacDonalds here from the first half of the decade. Watson did not move to Washington until 1977; Knight began to paint again in 1975.
No one in Washington makes more beautiful, more moving graphite figure drawings than Manon Cleary. No one, save perhaps for Joseph White, does finer oil portraits here than does Rebecca Davenport. Clark's paintings are remarkable, grandly colored, strong; and the color-pencil interiors of Kevin MacDonald are admirable. List's taste and mine often run parallel. But with two of her selections, and only on grounds of quality, I have to disagree.
Jennie Lea Knight is an admirable sculptor, and her drawings done from life are accurate and accomplished. But she seems to me an amateurish painter. We do not doubt she loves Claude the crow, Rufus the sheep, Liza the owl, Emily the goat and the other animals in her portraits; but these heavy-handed paintings, with their boring skies and trees, are at best, second-rate.
Joan Danziger's galumphing toys, with their rhino heads, their boneless toes and fingers, seemed silly when first shown, and since they've hardly changed since the first years of the '70s, they seem silly still. Why Danziger was chosen, and not Bill Lombardo, say, or Bill Sworoff, is one of the questions arising from this show.
Shannon gives me trouble, too. His images -- his leering shoe salesmen, his apes and odd self-portraits -- even though offensive, deserve one's admiration. They are powerful, original, sometimes even searing. But there has seemed for many years something slightly off-hand, perhaps even sloppy, in the way he paints.
Stevenson's clean and modest paintings have a special pedigree. With their flat planes and hard edges and New England evocations, they look as if they were bred by Hopper out of Noland. Stevenson, too, deserves this showing at the Corcoran, if only because he has never had a show there despite having taught at the Corcoran School of Art since 1965.
The other artist represented have, together, displayed their art in 30 previous Corcoran shows. List, it turns out, shows us here much we've seen before.
Genna Watson is less familiar. She is also greatly gifted. Her figures -- suffering and crucified and striking -- are the most surprising sculptures in the current show.
There are two conflicting strains the bizarre and the cool -- in Washington "realist" art. Both are glimpsed, but far from stressed, in List's exhibition.
The troubling, the odd and the occasionally bizarre often touch Shannon's work, as well as Davenport's and Watson's. Clark, MacDonald, and Stevenson cast a mood more quiet. Both qualities are balanced in the art of Manon Cleary. Her rats, her hands, her twin pictures are as idealized and lovely as they are disturbing. More carefully selected works might have made this point, or others, in the present show.
Someone from the Corcoran should bring us unfamiliar art. List has not. She has, however, gotten the whole town talking, and thus done us a service."Images of the '70s: Nine Washington Artists" closes March 16.