JOE SHANNON is a realist, a moralist, a scourge. His exhibition at Jack Rasmussen's, with its torturers and corpses and martyrs hung on meat hooks, is just about unbearable. His oils, prints and drawings, and his painted terra cottas, do not please, they purge.
His skill is not in doubt. Shannon, a traditionalist, a student of Degas, paints accurately, fluidly. He can catch a perfect likeness, the gleam off waxed linoleum, or the fabric of a shirt, but the beauty of his painting is shattered by his subject. Much realism nowadays is pre-digested pap, easy on the mind, easy on the eye. Shannon will have none of it. His art prohibits delectation.
For many years his paintings have forced us to confront the horror of the everyday, the bitterness that gnaws in lust, the howling that's concealed in mindless office chat. That which was implied in so much of his early work has now been made explicit. Once it was softened by his virtuoso brushwork and the humor of his groupings -- an ape beside a salesman, a lawyer in mid-air. There was something in his art then that allowed the viewer distance, that made his paintings seem figments of a dream. The horror now is naked. There is no distance here.
Shannon's Jews in showers, his victims seen in Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Tehran, are individuals, not symbols. No well-painted props, no flowers by the wall or sunlight on the table top, permit the mind to wander. These small painted statues are not works of sculpture, but starved and tortured corpses. Shannon, the strict moralist, will not let us ignore the inhumanity of man.
Shannon is an exorcist. If there is in his style, in the sweetness of his drawing and the sureness of his brush, something sentimental, his dark muse has commanded he wage ceaseless war upon it. If he harbors devils, he at least is trying to dispel them. One doubts his art will sell. His searing show at Rasmussen's, 313 G St. NW, closes Feb. 6. Olshonsky Gallery
Our rather sedate city has so far seen but little of the modish figure painting, with its tale-telling symbols, its savagery and scrawling, that now fills the galleries of Rome, Berlin and SoHo. Some hint of that style -- whether it be called New Image or New Wave or German Expressionism Rediscovered -- haunts the entertaining two-man show now at (the) Olshonsky, 443 7th St. NW.
The painters are Donald Davidson and Stewart Schmalbach. Schmalbach's garish greens and purples, his clenched and mask-like faces and his violent zigzag brushwork -- in conjunction with his titles, "Paranoid Pool Room," "You Didn't Try to Call Me," "Say What" -- uncannily suggest the anger and the fun and the heavy metal droning of the music once called Punk. A number of his figures have faces just the shape of Flying-V guitars.
Studying a Schmalbach is like sticking one's finger into an electric outlet. Beside the Schmalbachs, the Davidsons seem almost classical, though they're not exactly tame.
In Davidson's "False Resolve," a huge and rightly angry nude, with bullet holes between her breasts, chases down the guy who did the dirty deed. His "Cowboys and Gangsters" do battle on the street. In "A Burden and a Blessing," a sort of a self-portrait, the artist is portrayed lugging paint brushes so heavy they could break the poor guy's back. In another canvas, a towering music teacher informs the artist's sister that girls cannot play drums. Though Davidson's stories jolt, his well tuned colors soothe. He's a good painter. It is clear he has looked hard at the Fauve Matisse and at the young Duchamp. His paintings, unlike Schmalbach's, owe far less to New Wave music than to the processional history of art. Their show closes Feb. 6. Middendorf/Lane
The sculptures of Washington's Denise Sines, at Middendorf/Lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW., at first glimpse seem reserved, ungiving and austere. A 6-by-6-by-26-inch block of pine, cut from the center of the tree, sits upon the floor; a 2-by-2-inch bar of cold-rolled steel glows darkly in the wood, as if the tree had grown about a metal core. Sines' art mates wood (poplar, fir, red pine) and metal (aluminum or steel). Her materials never clash. Her seamless joints suggest her wood had turned itself to metal. There is about her quiet, minimalist art something almost Japanese, a sense of work and beauty modestly concealed, a pleasure in the colors of natural materials (the beige of poplar, the glisten of aluminum), a perfection of proportion, and the look of joints engineered so well that no glue was required. The slight shrinking of the wood is enough to hold the metal in a permanent embrace. Her show closes Saturday.