For the first time in a long time, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, once famous for its scouting, has unearthed in this city a first-rate local artist. The dealers passed him by, collectors somehow missed him. But that no longer matters: John Ryan has been discovered.
His painting exhibition, which opens there today, is his first solo show. And it is a treat.
More than 60 of Ryan's pictures fit into one gallery. They are poignant, enigmatic, and often very funny. They are small in scale only.
Ryan, 31, is part jeweler, part cartoonist, part dreamer, part reporter. He shows us much we've seen before -- Meridian Hill Park, the bums who sleep on sidewalk steam grates just joutside the Corcoran, Chinatown and pigeons. He also shows us ghosts, alchemists and vampires. "My pen is my soul," he says, "my work is my fun."
Ryan is at home with portraiture, collage, fantasy and landscape, and a dozen odd materials. He uses pebbled glass and plastic, scissors, brush and spray gun, bits of flowered wallpaper, and Chinese newsprint, too. The nicest thing about many of his most delicate constructions is not the rather sketchy drawing at the centers, but the wonderful surrounding handmade mat and frame.
Here ard there he bows to assorted other artists, to Cornell, Soto, and Red Grooms, to Pollock and Dufy, but these footnotes aren't important. He has done a number of drawings for this newspaper, but from them you'd never guess the strangeness of his paintings. To wander through his show is to tour the byways of an unfamiliar mind. We will hear more of John Ryan, of that you may be sure.
Displayed beside Ryan's work are 10 recent paintings by Wilfred Robert Brunner, another local artist who is slightly better known. Brunner seems to be a color field painter tired of mere color. He had added to his fields flat and outlined images, rather unexpected -- of oranges and lemons, bulls, boats and bananas. He writes upon his canvases the titles of his paintings. "I Do Not Look Like This" is based upon a photograph of Mark Rothko made at Yale in the early 1920's. The title quote is Rothko's, though it does apply just as well to Brunner, whose colors are most subtle, whose enigmas are too slight.
Clair List, the Corcoran's associate curator for contemporary art for the Washington region, was brought in to show us unfamiliar local art, and with these exhibitions she has done just that. "Personal Narratives: Wilfred Robert Brunner/John Ryan" closes Jan. 18.
An impressive exhibition of Jerome Liebling's photographs also goes on view at the Corcoran today. Liebling, born in 1924, has long been known for his rather strident, often moralistic documents -- of slaughter houses, cadavers and orating lpoliticians. His unsmiling works of black-and-white shock the viewer. His newer works -- in color -- do not yell, they sing.
His voyage from an art of bitterness to one of delectation is the message of his show. Liebling's colored pictures of apple blossoms have no social message, nor do his melodic studies of colored light on velvet, on marble, or on ldusty panes of glass. The beautiful is finally victorious in this show.
It was arranged by the Corcoran's Jane Livingston. Slowly she has published a series of catalogues on contemporary photographers that are as well written and as seriously considered as any of our time. The Liebling catalogue is one of her best. The show closes Jan. 24.