A four-story garden in the middle of a desert? A tombstone you can look into and see what happened to the deceased?A pyramid enclosing a lunar module made from old toy bits?
They're all in Ed McGowin's new show at Fendrick Gallery -- one of his finest to date.
McGowin hasn't stopped growing since the '60s, when he moved from minimal formed-plastic sculpture to conceptional art and then to the stageset tableaux he showed at the Corcoran in the '70s. One memorable example: a real crashed airplane.
Since then, story-telling tableaux have become his major expressive vehicle, whether in full-scale, in miniature or in airbrush drawings. His last show at Fendrick featured ominous images of unopened boxes.
This show, too, is about, boxes -- big ones. Over the past few years, McGowin has been seeking a way to incorporate his narrative scenarios into monumental sculpture, to package them into some more permanent form. His first fully realized attempt -- the big rusted-steel rhomboid in front of the Bread Oven restaurant on 19th Street NW -- was installed two years ago. Entitled "19th St. Inscape," it lures viewers to its tiny windows, which reveal, inside, an incomprehensible array of ropes and pulleys and an empty chair, suggesting that the operator of the strange contraption -- whatever it is -- has stepped out.
The problem with that work is that the outside form bears no relationship to the scene within, and functions as nothing more than a big, rusty container. Recognizing the problem, McGowin has been trying to refine a series of these "Inscapes," as he calls them, seeking to give the exteriors both more meaning and more visual presence. That effort began to hear fruit in a major outdoor sculpture commissioned by the General Services Administration in Jackson, Miss., and constructed last year. In the four "Inscapes" and several drawings in the present show, it is clear that McGowin has reached a mature phase in this cycle. And he has found a way to translate these works into domestic-scale sculpture.
"Children Inscape" (which he calls a "proposal") is a fully realized sculpture in every way. It is a rough gray tilted pyramid on a base of brightly colored stripes, and like everything in this series is pierced by enticing little windows of colored glass. In this case, they are shaped like various toys: an airplane, a baseball bat, a top. In the illuminated interior, McGowin begins to cast his spell, using the color of each window to alter the mood of the scene. Through the blue, airplane-shaped window, for example, one sees what appears to be a mysterious lunar-landing module under a night sky; but look at the same scene through the brighter yellow window and the "module" turns out to be a construction made from old toy boats, some blocks, a baby comb and a doll's teapot.
The McGowin show will be on view at Fendrick, 3059 M st. NW, through Nov. 1.
Upstairs at Fendrick, Robert Singletary is showing an impressive series of black-and-white drawings, all depicting the Chesapeake Bay as it appears under changing light and weather. Meticulously rendered in graphite pencil with imperceptibly fine line (he doesn't fudge and smudge), these contemplations of sea and sky before and after a storm, at dawn and dusk, capture changes in mood as well as appearance, "Morning on Chesapeake Bay" is particularly satisfying as a tour-de-force.
Ted Cooper, proprietor of the Adams Davidson Galleries, 3233 P St. NW, made good use of his summer vacation. Curious about the landscapes that inspired many 19th-century American painters and their followers (a gallery specialty), Cooper set out to retrace the footsteps of Thomas Cole, Sanford Gifford, Jasper Cropsey and a dozen others through the Catskills, Adirondacks and White Mountains. Working from a few dozen specific paintings, he sought to find the precise spot where the artists had sketched or set up their easels. Once there, he took color photographs of the scenes as they are today.
The 19th-century paintings and drawings are here hung side-by-side with Cooper's photographs in a delightful little show called "The American Landscape a Century Later." Cooper isn't likely to win any prizes as a photographer, but as documentarian he has done a fine job. He shows us, for example, that though bathers wear rather different grab these days, the beach at Long Branch, N.Y., as rendered by Alfred Bricher a century ago, has not changed all that much. Likewise, in Cooper's photograph of the spot where Alexander Wust rendered his "Early Morning in the Adirondacks," a cottage has replaced a tepee, and a car replaces the canoe. But the woods and lake still beckon.
Cooper's photographs also reveal something interesting about artistic license. The show continues through Nv. 11.