In the 1920s James L. Wells, now often and rightly called the "dean of Afro-American printmakers," pored over examples of African art in what were then called the "ethnological collections" of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. During the same period, while still a student at the Teachers College of Columbia University, he was a frequent visitor to the Morgan Library in Manhattan, where he carefully studied great examples of the European graphic arts tradition. Throughout his subsequent career of forceful image-making, Wells, who is still producing prints in the basement workshop of his Washington home, has combined strengths from the two traditions.
"The African/Afro-American Printmaking Tradition," an exhibition at Fondo del Sol, is in an important way a tribute to Wells. It features a selection of his work, from a 1930s wood engraving to linoleum cuts made recently in his basement workshop. Furthermore, of the eight other Washington artists included, seven were his students in the Howard University art department, where he taught from 1929 to 1968. The lone exception was a student of a Wells student.
Wells is an exceptional graphic artist. The early print, "The Escape of the Spies from Canaan," demonstrates his grasp of strong forms molded in black with delicate, decisive white lines. Later wood engravings, such as "St. Anthony," show how far Wells stretched the limits of this, his preferred medium. It is a large print in which the saint's massive body, as well as subsidiary background figures, is defined in bold, supple strokes. His recent linoleum cuts, in which unmodulated patches of color are boldy supplied as the underpinning for powerful figures defined in black, show no loss of strength.
That Wells was a superb teacher is proven by the work of his former students, which while being extremely varied in technique and imagery, is uniformly demonstrative of how to use the limits and the strengths of the chosen medium. Included are excellent works by Gail Shaw Clemens (lithography), Bill Harris (acrylic engraving), Percy Martin (etching), Michael Platt (aquatint), Joseph Ross Jr. (etching) and Lou Stovall (serigraphy).
The show's broader aims, to demonstrate the longevity of printmaking traditions in African culture and to show their continuity in the African diaspora, are loosely served by the inclusion of printed fabrics from Ghana and Nigeria and of graphic works by outstanding contemporary printmakers from Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa. In addition to fascinating parallels between the works of art from the two continents, the facts that Wells visited Africa in 1969, and that the visit affected his use of color, are worth noting.
The exhibition continues through April 15. Fondo del Sol, 2112 R St. NW, is open from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Paul Bowen, a Welsh artist now working in Provincetown, R.I., collects ocean-worn fragments of wood and metal from the beaches there and transports them to his studio, where they are, over years, painstakingly thought about, altered and reassembled to become subtly haunting, iconic sculptures of the kind now on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery.
There are three types of work in the show: tall pieces leaned against walls, compact compositions attached to walls, and short free-standing pieces. Contrasts between cylinder and circle, volume and plane, volume and line, and solidity and transparency make the works formally interesting. But their emotive presence has less to do with Bowen's compositional skills than with the careful treatment of their surfaces -- they are wrapped with tape and tarred -- and with the feeling one gets that somewhere, eons ago, they served some arcane purpose. As a child Bowen used to visit ancient Welsh sites with his father, a biographical fact that comes as no surprise.
Through March 27 at 2443 18th St. NW, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Constance Costigan, of Washington, and Patrica Bellan-Gillen, of Pittsburgh, share space at the Franz Bader Gallery this month. Although the installation is distracting -- here a Costigan, there a Bellan-Gillen -- the works of each repay attention.
Costigan is showing a broad survey of recent work. There are straightforward still-life exercises in pencil (with which she has a wonderful hand); anxious, tightly focused, generalized figures in oil crayon (ditto); luminescent scenes of marshes shrouding isolated running figures (in pastel, and ditto); and large, strange figurative works. (And more, if truth be told.) Most of Costigan's images have this strange quality about them, as if they had been discovered in eerie pools of light in the middle of dark night. The vigorous way she manipulates surfaces, while maintaining full control, is exceptional.
Bellan-Gillen, with meticulous skill, uses paint, pastel and pencil to create symbolical trompe l'oeil images of little mats of straw, sticks loosely tied together, sheets of paper snipped into triangles or shreds, gloves or shadows of the spread human hand, and other assorted elements. The symbolism, clearly meant to be universal, remains private. You can visualize the artist laying out the elements on her studio floor, and such artifice revealed robs the puzzle of much of its intended mystery. But the pictures are beautifully made: the elements, observed by the artist from an absolutely frontal point of view, are held in place like specimens under glass.
Through March 23 at 2001 I St. NW, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.