It isn't really fair to William Woodward to compare his new landscape paintings with those of 19th-century masters like Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church. He'd lose. But for reasons of sheer size, the comparison is bound to crop up. His craggy views of the rocky Brittany coast now at the Fendrick Gallery are gigantic, of mural scale. They are also unabashedly Romantic, dashingly painted and preoccupied with the chromatic effects of changing light and weather -- further evidence of their shared sensibilities.
But while the 19th-century Luminists chose to gasp at the grandeur of the American West, Woodward chooses to pursue his more personal love affair with Europe. This time his vantage point is far more treacherous than the Piazza San Marco and Riviera beaches, whose wind-whipped umbrellas were the subjects of his last show. The subject here is the Finistere, or "end of the earth" -- a name the ancient Romans gave this legendary red granite outcropping on the French coast -- thus the new palette of garnet reds and oranges. Though Woodward has painted near these rocks for 25 summers, he seems here to have a new-found awe of the place, expressed not only in the massive forms, but also in the new power of his brushstrokes. These are by far the boldest and most assured paintings he has done.
Yet there is something about these paintings that remains more decorative than profound, more appropriate to a theater lobby than to a contemplative spot in a living room. He calls them, collectively, "Dangerous Places," which he surely knows them to be. Yet rather than exploiting the sense of danger inherent in these forms, or underscoring an unsettling mood, he focuses instead upon the more effete glories of color and luminosity. Occasional formal problems also interfere: "Merlin's Rock," for example, falls into the water in an awkward way that dismantles its inherent drama; the shoreline simply seems to be in the wrong place.
The desire to convey meaning -- or content -- has never concerned Woodward as much as the sheer, sensuous pleasure of painting itself. Though the problem persists, he seems here to be making important strides in the right direction.
The show, which also includes several small studies and paintings on paper, will continue at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, through March 23. Hours are Mondays through Saturdays, 9:30 to 5:30.