The Great Depression never stopped the New York theater crowd. While top-hatted swells picked up their tickets at theater lobby box offices, the less-affluent mobbed the basement of Gray's Drug Store, corner of 45th and Broadway, where Joe Le Blanc ran a discount-ticket operation. Rich or poor, they met under the Astor clock, and smoked and schmoozed under the glittering marquees. Artist-illustrator Don Freeman (1908-1978) loved them all: the mobs, the snobs and the jarring contrasts between them. His lithographs have brought them all back to life in a show at the Bethesda Art Gallery, 7950 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda.
Freeman cast his caricaturist's eye at other crowds: in "Garment District," a teeming street, and in "Trickery at the Poles," a scene of vote-buying at a barber shop. But even here, the spirit is one of good-humored cynicism, never angry or bitter. Only once in this show does he get dead serious: in the powerful painting called "Dawn in the Assembly," which depicts the night in 1939 when the poor took over the assembly in Trenton, N.J. He made a lithograph of the subject, of which he wrote: "I would like to think that I did this as a protest. I mean, joining them. But my protest was hardly effective; all of three or four print lovers ever saw this lithograph." Thousands more have since come to appreciate Freeman's engaging prints. This show continues through March 3, and is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays till 8 p.m. Oils, Prints at Olshonsky
If you can imagine a painter who crosses new wave with old masters, you've got a hint of what Chris Fendley is up to in her new oils on paper at (the) Olshonsky, 443 Seventh St. NW. Her elusive scenarios are peopled by either collaged images of blank-faced rock musicians who have been bound, gagged, flattened and, occasionally, strung up by their necks; or by tranquil religious figures cut from reproductions of old-master paintings -- all seemingly oblivious to the plight of the helpless creatures spinning around them. The sense of turbulence is reinforced by the swirling brushstrokes.
These paintings are warnings, explains Fendley, for whom the old-master figures serve as judges of those with death-blank faces. These people, "must do something fast to change their destiny -- their karma," says the artist. Given the humorously chaotic impact of these works, others may share the view that it is better, in this case, to simply look, wonder and enjoy.
Showing concurrently at Olshonsky is printmaker Carla Klevan, whose complex monoprint technique is more fully developed than her imagery, which ranges from highly stylized landscapes to self-portraits that look dangerously like the work of Alex Katz. Most satisfying are a series of poetic prints based on -- believe it or not -- the Jersey Turnpike. Both shows continue through March 13. Hours are noon to 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Kornblatt's Picturesque Art
The figures in Susan Middleman's paintings have always been highly distinctive: small heads, large bulky bodies, giant feet and lively outlines. Like the paintings now at Kornblatt Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, they were often based on old family snapshots: a bathing-suited couple by the sea, squinting at the camera; a grinning elderly couple posed in their hotel room celebrating a happy occasion. There has always been at touch of satire, but aimed more at the things people take snapshots of than at people themselves.
There are several such works in the current show, but more important there are also some that show a new complexity. "Outdoors-Indoors," for example, depicts two men engaged in intense conversation -- but not for the purpose of being photographed. We cannot know what they are talking about, but our curiosity is aroused and reinforced by the inability to make sense of the ambiguous space, which is at once indoors and out. Ambiguity -- spatial and otherwise -- is also the most compelling feature of "Man's Best Friend," another large work that seems to be a painting within a painting surrounded by three admiring pooches. If snapshots are at the root of these works, the fact is subsidiary to a larger idea, and that is a big step in the right direction. The show continues through March 4, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.