MILO RUSSELL is a remarkable painter from Richmond who has said of his canvases, "My work is sick. I cannot live with what I have done. I certainly cannot go near a whole room full of the things." This is a strange statement for any painter to make, even an obsessional painter like Russell. Probably he was referring to the process of making the paintings, as if it were a kind of exorcism.
There is indeed a palpable tension in his works, on view at Gallery K, between the esthetic world Russell creates--the paintings are beautifully made, by a painter who knows the conventions and knows just what he wants--and the subject matter, which is the isolated, self-involved human figure. For a quick definition of the mood, you might say: Balthus, without the eroticism.
Russell's paintings are all alike, as Orthodox icons are all alike. The format is always the same and the subject is repetitive: A single figure seated or standing in an awkward frontal posture, in an ordinary room with ordinary props (window, door, chair, table, lamp, vase, plant, book, picture). And the paintings are different like icons are different. Subtle changes--in colors, point of view, elements in the room, posture and characterization of the figures--take on large significance.
The images are iconlike in another respect. The faces are all of a type repeatedly encountered in Byzantine painting: elongated ovals with long noses and wide, almond eyes. It is a type also much-used by certain modern painters in the 1920s and 1930s. One thinks of figures painted by Picasso, and then of those by Arshile Gorky, John Graham and Willem de Kooning. Russell's figures, painted as if they were pinned onto the surface of the picture, also have the shocked, stiff, flat quality that portraits by 18th-century American limners have.
All of this suggests that Russell's sensibility is distinctly modern, formed in the existentialist years after World War II. His images are devotional apparitions, or disturbing, trancelike revelations, mediated by a sensitive esthetic hand. The palette of soft, close-valued colors (blues, greens and ochres predominate, with accents of salmons and pink-oranges, or browns), the subtle vibrancy of the brushwork, the careful compositions and luminous overall light--all of these things, too, suggest a postwar parentage.
Russell is 62. He also makes landscape paintings, a subject that is all around his home south of Richmond. This is his first solo exhibition in Washington. It closes Saturday. Gallery K is located at 2032 P St. NW and is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Sculptures on a Grand Scale
The large wall sculptures by Josephine Ferrugia at the Middendorf Gallery suggest the partially bleached remains of huge, improbable carcasses. They are also quite impressive as sculptures. That is, movement around them, even if it is only 180 degrees, is essential in order to experience the constantly shifting relationships of irregular planes and lines in space.
They are made in an unusual way, from wire armatures wrapped with broad layers of cotton gauze that is saturated with a heavy, cementlike substance, and then painted and varnished. This produces an interesting, rough-hewn variety of textures. Protruding ropes and rubber tubes, like dead ligaments, add tough linear accents. The colors--white-white on exposed surfaces, faded yellows on the inside, and marrowlike purples and blues in the cavities--contribute significantly to their metaphorical and spatial presence.
In the garden at the rear of this gallery there are several matte-black, sheet-steel sculptures by Chris Gardner. Two of these are large, vertical pieces consisting of a variety of emphatic, sharp-edged, planar forms (arrow shapes predominate). They seem a bit too tasteful, despite their spiky aggressiveness. A third piece consists of a large transparent cube made by attaching a variety of thin, sharp, sheet-steel forms to an armature of metal tubes. Apollonian it is not--it has a dangerous look, like a cage in the process of being taken over by a voracious metal cactus.
The Gardner sculptures will remain on view through the fall. Ferrugia's show closes Saturday. The Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.