There is something retrograde, yet admirably honest, in Richard Niewerth's photo-realist paintings of automobiles, now parked at Robert Brown Contemporary Art. At 40, this Baltimore artist and teacher has been examining, close up and on the diagonal, imagery that entered painting's vocabulary 20 years ago -- a Volvo station wagon, a Dodge truck, his neighbor's BMW. But for the fact that they are updated models -- and that the artist is good at what he's doing -- this whole show might be dismissed as a photo-realist relic.
Yet Niewerth (perhaps inadvertently) is making a valid point: that cars are as much a part of our everyday environment as houses and trees and thus are just as viable as subject matter, even in this post-Pop era. It is especially true for Niewerth, whose interest has nothing to do with the car as social icon, but everything to do with the car as a vehicle (sorry) for exploring reflections of light and surrounding buildings, trees and sky. There is a whole skyline reflected in a red VW. Late-afternoon sun dances off several paint jobs in a parking lot.
These cars correspond in their way to a pianist's musical scales, and Niewerth has obviously learned a great deal in the course of his exercise. He has now moved on to reflective storefronts -- a dangerous business given Richard Estes' cornering of that market. Yet his goofy "Reflections in a Toy Store" suggests it may be a worthy new avenue of exploration nonetheless. The show closes Saturday at 1005 New Hampshire Ave. NW.