Drapery entices, threatens and ennobles. Few images in art are as richly laden as rippling cloth. Consider, for example, swaddling clothes, the Turin Shroud, the flimsies worn by cuties selling Chevys at Big Sur, the pennants sought by baseball teams, the purple of the emperors, the flowing cape of Superman, the judge's robe, the witch's rags, the altar cloth, the flag. That old suggestive icon has been teased and tested by artist Walter Kravitz, whose admirable art is now on exhibition upstairs at Jack Rasmussen's, 313 G. St. NW.
Kravitz does not work with cloth. But the tiny bound and folded forms one draws or floats in space are wrapped with many meanings -- the veil of Salome is not that of the bride. The first drawing that the visitor encounters here seems to show a field strewn with bits of cloth. Those small folded forms tug, like little magnets, at the space around them -- and at imagination. Are they rags or linen handkerchiefs, shards of antique sculpture or merely wrinkled rocks? The viewer takes his choice.
The largest work on view, a room-sized installation, is equally equivocal. Its many cutout paper parts, painted on both sides, seem to number in the thousands. Many crawl the wall, others hang in space. Some show human bodies (a number are self-portraits made by the artist's students at George Mason University), some show bugs or birds' wings. No two are alike. Though held in place, they move. Those suspended in the room twist on slender fishing lines, those fastened to the wall wave like paper shreds. This piece, like others here, suggests a break in time, an act about to happen. Those papers look like falling leaves pausing in midair. One reason that the ancients loved carving windblown drapery is that they did not wish their statues to seem completely still.
The art of Walter Kravitz disturbs as it charms. One drawing on display, "Billy's Habit (It'll Pass)," shows a crowd of bones or sticks that have been, like Gulliver, tied down to the ground. The threads snipped by the fates are those of which we weave our lives. Kravitz paints well, draws well, thinks well. His open-ended show may be read in many ways.
Rasmussen, downstairs, is showing recent abstract paintings by Washington's John Blee. Though Blee constructs his pictures of countless curving brushstrokes that recall the drips of Pollock and the "white writing" of Tobey, his glowing works suggest seas or skies or fires glimpsed through many feathers. Some seem wholly red, until the viewer notices the green that peeks between the brushstrokes; others appear white, but behind their layered eyelash-arcs other colors pulse. Both exhibits close April 25.
The Diane Brown Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, is showing bedroom still-lifes by Washington's Polly Kraft. The mood of her exhibit is intimate and rumpled.
She, too, loves the look of cloth, of folded, gathered fabric, but the drapery she shows us in this set of watercolors does not pretend to grandeur. Her subject is, instead, what Wallace Stevens called "complacencies of the peignoir." Her pillows have no pillow slips, her beds remain unmade. The props of Sunday morning, the coffee cup, the paper and bits of last night's clothing have been strewn upon the bunched and wrinkled sheets she paints.
Though casually composed, these unpretentious pictures are not void of toughness. It takes courage to use watercolor. That most demanding medium penalizes caution and allows no corrections. Kraft is pretty good at it. She understands the weight of the dripping brush and the light that's broadcast through the color by the whiteness of the paper. She knows when she must stop. Though the upper right-hand quarter of one untitled picture -- a coffee cup and pillow -- seems a complete abstraction, its few strokes of blue and gray are sufficiently explicit to pop the dented pillow into three dimensions. The glass of a hand mirror is equally well-painted. But she is not yet able to maintain the high standard in every little passage of every painting here. Her show closes April 30.
The B. R. Kornblatt Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, is showing urban landscapes by James Voshell, the Baltimore photo-realist. Many of his colleagues polish up their paintings -- they sweep their streets of litter and buff their panes of glass. Voshell likes the crummy. He paints junk shops, tattered burlesque posters, decaying brick walls. "Mulberry Street Corridor," the largest painting here, is a symphony of wreckage. Its subject is a row-house row that has been half-demolished. Its broken walls, trash piles and backyard junk have been painted with great care. Voshell paints some things very well, sidewalks for example, but needs a lot of work on his trees and skies.
His show is badly damaged by the hack work that corrupted the genre he prefers. No group of artists working now has produced a greater number of meretricious paintings than his fellow photo-realists. There are a few exceptions -- Rebecca Davenport, for instance, or the grand Richard Estes -- but Voshell, although competent, is not in their class. His show closes May 6.
The Mickelson Gallery, 707 G St. NW, is showing the Frenchified still lifes and landscapes of Washington's Gary Shankman. His work is conventional. Shankman, who paints bottles, oranges and apples -- those subjects of Cezanne's -- or barns or loaves of bread, studied painting here at American University. The AU style shows in the subjects he returns to, the small scale he prefers and the daubs of color he puts down. Two paintings here are rather nice -- one shows the sun-striped trunk of a copper beech, the other offeres mustard jars -- but this show should have been edited. His exhibit closes April 27.