What a night for navel gazing.
Sixty-five self-portraits by Washington artists, and close to 65 artists, masked for mystery at the Jane Haslem Gallery.
"Is that a woman?" one man asked incredulously as he stared at a wall-sized portrait of a muscular figure, almost nude, its sagging buttocks swathed in sorry-looking briefs, head turned just enough to reveal a receding blond hairline.
The woman on the wall, Washington painter Rebecca Davenport, shook her tinsel wig. "I painted it when I was very down on myself," she said. "I had just broken my hip."
Painter Manon Cleary was dressed in black and gazing at her "Graduation Day: Self Portrait with Mother 1984." In it, she is naked against a background of deep green. Her ivory arms are bathed in yellow winter light. The head is tilted back, but her features are pursed in an expression her ex-husband called the "fish face." She took the face from a photo made before her divorce.
There was hardly an abstraction to be found; even the landscape painters turned in two eyes, two ears and a mouth. "I haven't done a portrait in 20 years," trilled redhead Kitty Klaidman. In the painting her neat curls blossom into a Neo-Expressionist explosion. "Back then, it was hair pulled back, very severe, terribly serious. I like myself better now."
Painter Fred Folsom put himself in the corner of a sprawling bacchanal called "Sunday at the Park." The "park" is a strip club at the Maryland line. Folsum is the bored face behind the man lifting a T-shirt off a woman balanced on his lap. "Half the people are either on pre-release or over at Patuxent," he said.
Artists flipped through an exhibition catalogue to which each had contributed an assessment of Washington's relentlessly self-analyzing art community:
"In Washington, as in other American cities, artists come together in order to hang around decaying semi-industrial parts of town looking for cheap rent, cheap beer and an exhibition every 18 months . . . " opined one artist.
And: "The Washington art community, like all major art communities, is populated by hacks, glory hunters, complainers, whiners, bad dealers, good dealers . . . " wrote another.
"There is no coherent Washington art scene that I'm aware of . . . " wrote a third.
Most of the paintings were sun-shot and brimming with exuberant color.
The blues were for the artists who didn't make the wall.
"I'm not in the show and I wonder why not," one woman said gloomily as she lifted a petit four from the buffet.
"You have to be very, very good," her friend said matter-of-factly, "and I ain't."
"They didn't ask me," said portraitist Elena Vidotto as she sat alone in the Osuna Gallery next door. "Never mind. One day I'll paint rings around everybody."