You don't have to like the bizarre fantasies of Donald Roller Wilson to agree when he says: "I think I'm going to be a major artist."
In one oil painting of an abandoned breakfast table, the rendering of a single fried egg (sunny-side up) makes the point: At his best, Wilson can paint like the little Dutch masters.
Wilson's best is better than ever in his newly mature show at Fendrick Gallery. He is still painting incongruous narratives in spooky settings: One new scenario features a tacky old sofa, a nude on the floor and some levitating popcorn. But the excessive visual clutter of the earlier works is gone, replaced by a new intensity of focus, a more accessible sense of drama, and frequent passages of virtuoso realist painting. Also mercifully absent from the big, important paintings are the elaborately costumed monkeys and kitty cats that have served, until now, as Wilson's cast of resident players.
For those who have acquired a taste for these human impersonators (and several movie stars who have lent works to this show suggest the taste has been widely acquired), there are several small ancestor-type portraits of them on view. All have been hilariously over-framed, some in puckered satin by a Houston casket company.
But it is the triptych cryptically titled "Passover: The Writing on the Wall" that marks the high point of this show, and for Wilson it is a masterpiece. Featuring the aforementioned breakfast table with the incredibly edible painted fried egg, it is a superbly handled study, in oil, of the mess left behind by two people -- a man and a woman. A purse on the chair and a cup with lipstick smears establish the place where the woman sat; a pipe, the place occupied by the man. The scene has been painted as if in a three-way mirror, offering simultaneous but different views of the two chairs, and heightening the sense of ambiguity.
Above the scene, Wilson has added some visual mysteries of the sort that have always pervaded his work, but are now simplified: three levitating pencils and some thin, arched lines that describe -- according to a narrative poem he wrote to accompany the work -- the "air-borne path" the man and woman took as they left the room. Wilson's poem -- he writes one to go with each painting -- goes on to describe the scene as an allegory with allusions to the Holy Ghost and the Last Supper.
The artist admits that his poems are after-the-fact indulgences -- verbal embellishments used to convey thoughts that occur to him during and after his "sets" have been built and the paintings made. (He actually builds and "poses" each scene and then paints it in the manner of a still life.) In his lesser paintings such verbal narratives may fill in for visual inadequacies. In a beautifully painted work such as this, however, they seem irrelevant encumbrances.
Houston born and Kansas bred, Wilson, 43, currently resides in Fayetteville, Ark. A large, early painting was purchased some years ago by Joe Hirshhorn, who told Wilson (while unwittingly burning a hole through his jacket with a cigar) that he expected him to make it big some day. The painting is now in the Hirshhorn. This show will continue at 3059 M St. NW through Dec. 4. Oscar Chelimsky's Abstracts
Like Sam Francis, painter Oscar Chelimsky opted out of the American art scene after World War II. In 1949, after studies in New York and exposure to the early days of the Abstract Expressionist revolution, he headed for Paris and there built a considerable reputation as an American abstractionist in the new mode. By the time he returned to America in 1977, his works were included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York. He is now the chairman of the painting department at the Maryland College of Art and Design in Silver Spring.
Chelimsky's first Washington solo at Slavin Gallery begins with some typical '50s Modernist paintings echoing Klee and Miro, and continues with later examples that conjure Jackson Pollock's drips and splatters -- obviously a persistent and basic influence. In fact, one of the best works in the show, titled "Black and White, 1957," is in this mode.
From there, Chelimsky began to develop a distinct style of his own -- swirling, amoebic configurations of brush strokes (usually in pairs) moving energetically across the canvas. He has not wavered from that format -- which he calls "Big Open Form Series" -- for the past 15 years, and these works make up the bulk of his show. They lead to some inevitable conclusions, chief among them the fact that the earlier paintings in oil were richer in every way than the acrylics now being turned out. The addition of a penciled grid to recent canvases suggests an attempt to find a new idea -- and surely the time has long since come -- but it is, in the end, a superficial gesture.
The show continues through Tuesday at 404 Seventh St. NW. The gallery will be open today and Tuesday from noon until 4.