Thomas Downing, the Washington color painter, is back in stride again at 52.
Seven years ago, when Downing started fading, stopped showing and stopped inventing, many here began to fear that his career had ended. He had merely paused.
Nine of his new paintings are now on view at Osuna's, 2121 P St. NW. Fresh and bold and balanced, they are among the most imposing pictures he has done.
Washington color painting is no longer much in favor here. With Morris Louis and Howard Mehring dead, and Downing in quiescence, the style has for years seemed stale, perhaps finished. To walk into the Downing show is to recall the good old days when hard-edge color painting seemed the most exciting abstract work being done.
Downing has never been known for his drawing or his brushwork. He casts arcs with a compass, using masking tape and rulers when he wants to paint straight lines. Anyone with patience could reproduce a Downing, if they had his colors -- his odd maroons and pinks, his beiges, reds and greens. But Downing is the only one who knows how to design them. What makes his pictures matter is not the simple method of their manufacture, but the far from simple way that they'd been figured out.
One sees Downing's accomplished professionalism most clearly in the way these works are poised. Symmetries, subtleties and blatancies, emblems strong as stop signs and airy open fields, have been placed in balance here. An eerie equilibrium unifies the show. Even when a shocking pink touches a deep crimson -- even when two scalloped shapes, one orange and one white, counterweight a plane of red -- these paintings do not tilt.
All these paintings use stacks of overlapping circles -- three, four, five or 55. And all are verticals. Downing would agree that there is no such thing as a wholly abstract art. All horizontal pictures, by suggesting the horizon, imply the look of landscape. These verticals, instead, suggest presences, not places. They look like totems -- or doors.
The tall color fields of crimson, beige or dusty blue that stand at their centers are both edged and open. It takes a while to see a picture by Tom Downing. Sometimes they seem wild, sometimes calm. Sometimes they confront you like larger-than-life figures; sometimes they seem openings that invite you to step through.
Washington color painting does not appeal to all. There are those who find it too rigorous, too dull. But those who still remember how thrilling it once seemed, how daring and how fresh, will get a touching and refreshing blast of deja vu from the Downing show, which closes on May 3.
Robert Stackhouse at Henri's, 21st and P streets NW, is showing boats and ghosts of boats. They belong as much to death as they do to life. The planks and decks that clothed them once have gone the way of all flesh, and their wooden ribs resemble bones bleached by the sea.
These rough and graceful sculptures stand on stilts or hang from ropes, sailing the air as once they plied the oceans. On the walls behind them, in drawings of great boldness, are pictures of the boats that dead boats might dream.
This moving exhibition, like others the artist has offered us before, casts a mood of timelessness. The boats of Stackhouse seem both fresh and ancient. Two drawings here portray The Witch of the Wave, the clipper ship that George Raynes launched in 1851. The eye that's painted on her prow recalls the painted eyes of boats sailed by Phoenicians -- the wooden boats nearby suggest the craft that Charon took across the Styx. Stackhouse works with night-black charocoal and with liquid paint that drips like blood. He is an admirable artist. His show closes on May 7.
Sidney Guberman's new paintings, now at Diane Brown, 2028 P St. NW, are as busy and as colorful as a densely planted garden that has just burst into flower. Purists who prefer the calm, who like to examine one bloom at a time, who hate to be distracted by bees and birds and sunbeams, may find these works too cluttered.
They are packed with arcs, stripes, brushy brush strokes; with references to Hofmann, art deco and Matisse; and with many patterns. What unifies these paintings and saves them in the end is their unrestrained exuberance, their sense of sunny joy. Look, for instance, at the mostly yellow painting he calls "Crazy Sunday," a lovely work that somehow hints at lazy mornings in the summer Sunday sun. These are the freest paintings Guberman has done. Their colors work. They will remain on view through May 3.
The paintings and sculptures by Marcia Marx, now at the Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave., rear, are not wholly serious, but the laughter that is in them is bitter, full of spite.
The people Marx portrays, in oddly empty fields of bruised blue or green have humped noses, boneless fingers bulging thighs, wear too much rouge and funny hats, and often seem to scream. The faces she sculpts of colored fleshlike plastic are equally disturbing. One recalls their foolishness and their predatory teeth. Marx mocks the people that she paints and, mocking them, mocks us. Her show closes May 4.
Not everyone likes hope-filled art. Pessimists disturbed by the sweet airs of spring may enjoy a plunge into Douglas Jaeger's exhibition at the Nourse Gallery, 3212 N St. NW.
Jaeger makes his lifelike purple tongues, plucked and prancing chickens, hands pierced by holes and dead mice out of solid latex paint. The mice were trapped in mousetraps: First their necks were broken, then their corpses were cast. He calls these pieces "Trophies." The chicken, too was cast from life. The pallor of its skin, its ungainly stride, and the stitches in its flesh make it seem a monster, the Frankenstein of hens Jaeger's show closes April 27.