If the economy has caused some softening in the art market, the news has not reached downtown Bethesda. Two current shows -- drawings by Roger Medearis at Capricorn Gallery and the annual holiday show at Bethesda Art Gallery -- were nearly sold out on opening day. Such buyer enthusiasm recalls the heady days of the '60s, when art collectors stood in line to get first crack at the newest fashion. What has changed is the fact that when collectors line up these days, it tends to be for art that is old-fashioned -- at least in Washington.
Roger Medearis, the biggest seller at Capricorn, is not only a traditionalist but an academic -- nearly an extinct species today. His paintings and drawings recall the work of his mentor, American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Now 60 and living in California, Missouri-bred Medearis recalls Benton's classes: "Paintings by the old masters were projected on a screen, and we would redo them as blocks and cylinders and spheres. And before we began painting, we would model the entire composition in clay -- a feeling for weight and depth comes from that."
Benton's influence dominated Medearis' art until 1977, when he turned from painting folksy genre scenes to making the 20 painstaking graphite drawings that constitute the present show -- his entire output for the last four years. There are basically two subjects: old folks sitting on park benches (a theme he has continued from his paintings) and mountainous western landscapes, often with a tiny, lone horse and rider set into the scene to establish its panoramic scale. The old folks, though rendered with empathy, still verge on caricature, crossing Benton with Norman Rockwell but surpassing neither. The landscapes, however, announce a new openness and freshness that have resulted in some of the artist's most original work.
But the drawings are no less painstaking than the paintings. They are meticulously built from tiny marks and cross hatchings rendered with razor-sharp points of graphite lead. "They make it possible to describe details clearly, and to suggest the most subtle lights," says Medearis, whose silvery, almost surreal light washes his sweeping views of tree-strewn hills and valleys with a sense of all-pervasive calm.
Medearis discusses his work in several fascinating letters written to Capricorn director Phil Desind, and they are part of this show. The two began their association in 1966, after Desind saw a lone Medearis painting in an old Philadelphia gallery, and was told that the artist was "probably dead" -- a safe assumption for a traditional realist at the time. Desind persisted, and, with the help of Benton, traced Medearis to California. As it turned out, the artist within had died when Medearis abandoned painting in 1950 in the face of the Abstract Expressionist onslaught. With Desind's encouragement -- and with his subsequent repeated sellouts at Capricorn -- his career was resurrected and is now in blooming health. The show continues through Wednesday, and the gallery, located at 4849 Rugby Ave., is open today 11 to 5; Sunday 1 to 5; Tuesday and Wednesday 11 to 4:30 and 7 to 9.
Lithographs by Benton and Grant Wood (another major Medearis source) are among the highlights of the Bethesda Art Gallery's current holiday show, a popular annual event among fans of early 20th-century American prints, the gallery specialty. If this year's show includes fewer works by low-priced "unknowns," it is because so many long-overlooked realists have now had successful revivals here, with price rises to match.
But, as always, there is enough that is both inexpensive and new to make the show worth seeing: a fine "Portrait of a Child" by A.W. Heintzelman; a charming etching of a French circus by Polly Knipp Hill; "Night in Chinatown" by San Francisco etcher John W. Winkler; and "Playground, Central Park" by William Meyerowitz. Don Freeman, subject of the gallery's next show, is represented by two marvelous views of life in New York in the '30s, one called "Under the Astor Clock." The show continues at 7950 Norfolk Ave. through Dec. 24, and is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5; Thursday evenings till 8.
Washington pattern-painter Jerry Clapsaddle has just begun to work on a monumental scale, and the results -- now on view at McIntosh/Drysdale -- should not be missed. Two 20-foot-long murals, each very different from the other, dominate this show of four works. The atypical "Pumpkin Hollow Stacks" is the big surprise -- tall stacks of strokes painted in clear, vibrant colors that make playful reference both to Washington's monumentality and the Washington Color School.
But the highlight is "Prairie," a painting that wraps the viewer in a sense of exhilaration and well-being, as cloudlike drifts of color lure the eye and mind across the canvas. Though built from Clapsaddle's typical short, curved brushstrokes over a basic grid, this painting is new in the sense that the strict patternings have given way to a new softness and lyricism. The authoritativeness of his brushstroking also here extends -- for the first time -- to the all-over conception of the work, suggesting that a riper phase of Clapsaddle's work may be at hand. The show continues at 406 Seventh St. NW, through Jan. 7. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5:30.