WRAPPING THINGS TO arouse a sense of mystery and curiosity is a trick as old as wrapping birthday presents. And using textiles to wrap objects -- and people -- for the same purposes is also a centuries-old art tradition. There are European and American trompe l'oeil paintings from as far back as the 18th century featuring objects (including paintings) mysteriously wrapped with cloth. There are also precedents in sculpture, the most prominent local example being the Corcoran's well-known 19th-century marble bust of a woman entitled "The Veiled Nun," a tour-de-force of illusionist carving by a 19th-century Italian named Giuseppe Croff, that is both mysterious and macabre. In a post-Pop vernacular, Christo has swathed whole buildings and mountainsides in fabric for the purpose of attracting attention to what is underneath. Two current shows suggest that the tradition persists in contemporary painting as well.
In his last show at Osuna, John Stewart from Cincinnati switched from painting trompe l'oeil drops of water to painting acrobatically contorted female torsos wrapped in satin -- most of them rump-side forward and unabashedly designed with surreal and erotic overtones. They make the perfect art for bedrooms with mirrors on the ceiling.
This "playboy" esthetic persists in his current show, but the paintings seem less contrived, the airbrushing of the satin more accomplished and the whole visual throb toned down. Spotlighting and color still tend to the garish -- dropping occasionally to the lurid -- but what jacks these paintings up several notches is the introduction of real arms and shoulders (no flesh appeared in the earlier paintings) which, despite their pure billboard style, make clear that these are human beings under the heavy satin sheets, not just erotic fantasies.
The mood now is one of utter stillness, as figures hover in an only vaguely surreal snooze, often in pairs. Obviously fearful that the erotic aspect will be missed (these paintings sell like hotcakes), Stewart struggles mightily to keep them naughty by using titles that suggest sexual duality (as in "Syllogism") or downright evil ( in "Scylla" and "Charybdis"). To their credit, the suggestiveness of the titles is not backed up by the content of the paintings. The show continues through Nov. 4, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 6.