Washington artist James Pernotto grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the '50s, which he recalls was "a stone's throw from the steel mills, flames, red skies . . . bangs, clangs, whistles, nationalistic neighborhoods, Catholic church and schools; pomp, processions, glitter, back yard and home shrines; amusement parks, church festivals and sideshows." His early immersion in this visual cacophony goes a long way toward explaining the rare brew that has emerged in Pernotto's poignant show at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW. The place has been transformed into what looks like a votice chapel dedicated to man's survival over the blast furnace.
Set against soot-gray walls that conjure up both the devil and the divine, the show begins with a series of drawings and photographs titled "Slow Death." It provides a straight-forward documentation of the demise of several Ohio coke plants and blast furnaces. The emotional wallup in these images, however, comes from the fact that before them, on the floor, is a scattering of blackened steelworkers' goggles and dustgorged protective gear, suggesting that the slow death of the title applies not only to the factories, but to the workers.
Here, as throughout his work, Pernotto makes his point by combining images and objects that ignore the traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture, and other traditions as well. "Passion," the centerpiece of this show, is a giant crucifixion painted on handmade paper -- the bizarre, bloodied figure of Christ rendered in a style that mixes the religious intensity of 15th-century German painting with the cartoony aspects of Chicago's Hairy Who painters. The triptych is surrounded by a frame covered with carved wooden spikes, tangible reference to the crown of thorns.
Below the crucified Christ stand not the traditional figures of the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, etc., but the people of Ohio, with blast furnaces belching black smoke into the background. Accompanying the painting as part of the ensemble is an actual large-scale model of such a building, made of corrugated metal and painted gray.
This art, though seemingly profane, is, in the end, deeply religious and profoundly moving. It is to the traditional altarpiece what the guitar is to the mass.
The show ill be on view 9:30 to 5:30 through Saturday. Conumdrums
Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW, is introducing the work of Gottfried Helnwein, a young Viennese artist who shares what seems to be an Austrian obsession with highly detailed realism -- with a surrealistic edge. Trained at the Austrian Academy, and now in the process of moving to New York, Helnwein makes figurative drawings and watercolors that are occasionally gruesome, sometimes haunting and always ambiguous. Spatial and narrative ambiguity are, in fact, the central expressive devices in Helnwein's art.
A large, meticulously painted watercolor titled "A Dream" is typical. In it the viewer is lured into pondering whether the lone figure of a child in a muted pink dress in asleep on the ground, or has been hit by a car and left unconscious. The cool, eerie light is unsettling, and adds to the confusion: Is this child lying by a roadside in a pubble, or on white sand in the sun? Few parents are likely to trot such a painting home to hang over the family hearth, but the artist's ability to conjure up open-ended dramatic narrative is unquestionable.
Easier to look at -- and live with -- are several small paintings and crosshatched drawings of people caught in poses and with facial expressions that leave everything to the imagination: Are they happy or sad? asleep or dead? Singing or letting forth with primal screams? These cleverly conceived conun" drums will continue through October.
The gallery is open 11 to 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays.