It's been too long since we've had an update on the work of painter-sculptor-conceptualist Ed McGowin -- unless you count the brouhaha surrounding the vandalism of "Inscape," his large public sculpture on the sidewalk in front of 1220 19th St. NW. That downtown landmark is a hollow, oddly shaped object with peepholes through which viewers peer at the surreal tableau within. It included (before it was ravaged) bronze shoes, a hat and other objects suggesting a mysterious, absent inhabitant.
These monumental "inscapes" (his word) have preoccupied McGowin for the past 10 years, and his last Washington show, at Fendrick Gallery, dealt chiefly with proposals for related outdoor projects, many now complete. The special pleasure of McGowin's new show at Osuna Gallery is that it includes, once again, domestically scaled, contemplative works that can be taken home, hung on the wall and enjoyed in private.
But he has given up no originality in the process. Collectively titled "Sculptured Book Series," these illusionistic airbrushed watercolors are all shaped like large open picture books, each boxed in a thick black frame echoing the open-book shape. Each painting features a page of pictographs (tiny champagne glasses, small faces, arrows), and, on the opposite page, an illustration that presumably relates. McGowin says he can read his hieroglyphs -- a fact to be taken on faith. But it hardly matters; as in all of McGowin's art, the ultimate experience is personal and intuitive.
It is also cumulative, so it is no surprise to find images from his traditional lexicon among these works: levitating birthday cakes with candles, walking sticks, a hairless dog with fearsome pointed teeth, toes and ears. Some have the see-through aspect of his "inscapes": a bathtub seen through the cutout shape of a hat; a cake seen through a cutout shape of a rabbit.
What does it all mean? In fact, McGowin has something of an explanation. He says the entire series relates loosely to the Garden of Eden and sprang from an eerie event he witnessed in a South African garden, when a hairless terrier (of the sort he has used often in his work) suddenly attacked a Pekingese and snapped its neck. That terrier appears often in this show, including one painting in which the shadow -- but not the body -- of an absent dog lurks nearby.
But if such an explanation adds something to our understanding of what prompted specific images in this show, it does not -- and cannot -- really explain works that function so personally in visceral, subconscious ways. McGowin seems to be taking stock in this show, making order, pulling together various ideas and possibilities before his next assault on the ordinary. Meanwhile, this update will continue at Osuna, 406 Seventh St. NW, through March 9. Hours are 10 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Paintings by Pat Abbott-Ryan
Pat Abbott-Ryan is a talented and prolific young painter who has been making a multipronged attack on the art world. One show has just closed at the Touchstone Gallery. Another is on view at the Foundry Gallery through March 2.
The Touchstone show was better. Made up of smaller paintings collectively titled "The Possession," it focused on paradisiacal little scenes of houses surrounded by swaying palm trees and swimming pools, all reduced to flat, brilliantly colored patterns. But there were armed soldiers, too, guns at the ready, implying big trouble in paradise. Alluding, no doubt, to the U.S. military presence in Latin America -- a subject on the minds of many artists these days -- Abbott-Ryan mercifully avoided using a club to make her point, using formal means instead to hint at impending calamity.
The larger, more experimental paintings at the Foundry, titled "Monuments," do not fare so well, at least in part because their size exceeds the importance of the ideas that propel them. While repeating some of the images from the Touchstone show -- soldiers, houses, helicopters and such -- Abbott-Ryan is here toying with a different idea: that of icons and heroic sculpture, also flattened into almost cartoon-like patterns. The best painting is of an "everyman" figure installed upon a high pedestal, but it is diminished by its similarity to the work of artist Jonathan Borofsky.
Abbott-Ryan -- like all of us -- needs an editor to help cull what she shows, and she needs to keep paintings with cheesecloth attached out of the public eye. In her lunge toward recognition -- which undoubtedly will come -- she seems at present to be spreading herself a bit too thin. The Foundry show, located three flights up at 404 Seventh St. NW, is open 11 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Ellis' Paintings on TV
Actress Mary Tyler Moore turns out to be a very good artist, thanks to Washington watercolorist Deborah Ellis. Ellis' works will be passed off as Moore's on "Finnegan Begin Again," a TV movie to be shown tomorrow night at 8 on HBO. In the movie, Moore plays an artist, and Ellis' works were chosen to play her paintings after they were spotted in a gallery in Richmond, where the movie was made.