Phil Desind, owner of Capricorn Galleries in Bethesda, has championed realist painters exclusively -- even when they were excluded from fashion -- which includes most of the 20 years he's been in business. As a result, there are realist paintings and drawings hung or stashed on every available square inch of wall and floor. A compulsive collector, Desind loves only one thing more than well-crafted realism, and that's discovering overlooked talent. He's done it again in his current show of paintings and drawings by California artist Robert Julius Brawley.
Brawley is no beginner. Now 47, he had already achieved some reputation both as painter and as teacher in San Francisco before spending a watershed year in Mexico in 1979. This show begins with paintings from that year. Though he began as an abstract expressionist, a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy in 1965 revived an interest in realism and traditional painting techniques that he has pursued ever since. This show is of special interest because it so vividly tracks a gifted realist in his pursuit of his own mode of expression.
The earliest works -- unsettling drawings of aged female nudes with sagging, dimpled flesh -- represent his photo-realist phase, which Brawley largely abandoned after the year in Mexico in search of a style that permitted more psychological content. Working outside the mainstream, he has since found his way through many modes, obviously looking hard at the work of other contemporary realists. There are paintings here that reflect everything from the gory surrealism of the late Ivan Albright to the psychologically intense Gregory Gillespie, to the more sentimental reality of Andrew Wyeth and Balthus' mysterious figuration.
These influences are all subtle, but amply evident until the most recent works, in which Brawley has found a way to combine his own virtuosic ability to render textured surfaces with a new ability to portray inner life in his female figures as well. The last painting is his most masterly combination of the two: a striking portrait of his wife, seated at a table and staring straight at the viewer, her face anxious, her hands sensitive and worn. On the wrinkled tablecloth before her is a carefully arranged, enigmatic still life with a shell, a rock, a length of knotted rope and a small cactus plant so convincingly painted that you sense you could snag your finger if you touched it.
After he returned to the U.S. from Mexico in 1980, Brawley began entering -- and winning -- national painting competitions, and he dates what he calls his "new lease on life" from the day Desind first saw his work in a show at the Butler Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. Since then, says Brawley, Desind has sold virtually every painting he has made. Everything in his impressive show has been borrowed from various owners. It will remain at 4849 Rugby Ave. through Nov. 25, and is open every day but Monday. There are also evening hours Tuesday through Friday, 7 to 9.