FRANK WRIGHT, PAINTINGS 1968-1980 At the Corcoran through July 19, 17th & New York Avenue NW. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 4:30; Thursday evenings until 9.
A panorama of "Ninth Strret" tempts viewers into the depths of the canvas to see more storefronts and recognize who's crossing the street. There in the middle of the Corcoran Gallery, the FBI Building towers over Sunny's Surplus and the Lone Star Beef House, a federal fortress among the neon signs for "amusements" and "adult flicks." And in the far-left section of the polyptych, a bearded Frank Wright leans against a cashier's booth, arms folded, looking nonplussed at observers of his painted world.
A sixth-generation Washingtonian and former teacher at the Corcoran School, Wright paints scenes of the town as it is today, with tacky signs beneath his LeDroit Building studio proclaiming "Hi-Boy Donut Shop," and as it was at the turn of the century, with streetcars and ads for the Hotel Occidental. The Corcoran exhibition, his first, presents 60 of his paintings, 1968 to 1980.
Wright's ultra-realism is immediately accessible, his subjects instantly recognizable. And while his photographic style could put distance between painting and viewer, there is personal warmth in each scene.
Several of his works are based on historic photographs of the city: In "F Street 1900," his studio building is shown in its youth, and Wright is visible among the pedestrians, the only one dressed for the 1970s. Other nostalgic hometown views include "The Big Parade of '89," and a throng at the inauguration of William McKinley. He ties us to our local past and gives urban landscapes a sense of continuity.
We are treated to portraits of his friends, models, fellow artists and ancestors. Family photo-album glimpses of his daughter absently pondering a cup of coffee and the remains of a cake ("Suzanne by the Window"), and of his wife, as in "Mary Setting the Table," carry us into the intimate family circle. In each instance, details are exquisitely drawn, down to the oriental rug pattern. Aging before our eyes, "Suzanne at Thirteen" begins to look wise to her artist father.
Time is captured in layers: His baby snapshots turn up in recent self-portraits, with working canvases on easels reflected in the background. Wright plays against mirrors in several works. "Mirror Image" chronicles his day-to-day clutter: bookshelves and clothesline included in a self-portrait in the studio with at least two of his paintings recognizable in the reflection.
And subjects are revealed from multiple angles: A portrait of "Clarice" hangs beside "Clarice Painting Her Mother," which affords a triple view of her mother over Clarice's shoulder -- posing, on the canvas and in a mirrored reflection from behind.
Excepting the shots of Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1900s, the artists imagination figures into the rendering along with straight documentation. He works from posed models with both black-and-white photographs and color slides, never exactly copying from a photo image. Guest curator David Tannous says Wright's completed works are the products of "on-the-spot observation and a continuous process of modification, rather than the re-creation of a photograph."