"The Washington Art Community: Self-Portraits," at the Jane Haslem Gallery (406 7th St. NW), is a tremendously enjoyable show, a temporary coming together of 65 high-energy individuals each of whom looks as if he or she will escape from the room with a sigh of profound relief, as if from an "interesting" party or an unlikely and dangerous combination of chemicals, as soon as humanly possible. Unhappily for them, but lucky for us, this time won't come until the end of July, when the show closes.
There's a bit of best-foot-forward hokum involved, of course, as at any social gathering. Leon Berkowitz, the mystical guru of the Washington scene, whose customary abstract canvases are like distillations of misty essences, intimations perhaps of life after death, presents himself here as a benign and impishly wizened oldster. Why, it's Sandy Calder, I thought, until reading the caption alongside the picture. It's a wonderfully happy pose and, all curls of color, a beautiful drawing.
And there is a bit of serious, high-spirited gamesmanship. Photographer Allen Appel, for instance, catches himself in the act of taking a picture of himself -- he's the little magician orchestrating the mise en sce ne from the center of a circular mirror, which itself is the centerpiece of a foreboding still-life composition. "Watch your step!" the image says. The mirror sits atop the lovingly splayed carcass of a bird.
Joe Shannon presents himself without portraying himself, per se. He is not among the six manic figures in his painting, "Pan Worship" (unless that be he in altered or disguised form as the sadly comic bronzed god overlooking the action), which suggests that this realist painter is issuing his own warning: "Don't pin me down!" Margarida Kendall sees herself, convincingly, as a bird. Sam Gilliam, abstract painter of multifarious guises, here shows his wit: He's a paper construction, multi-colored. Scip Barnhart, more traditionally, leaps the logic of time to present himself in the company of Rembrandt and Bogart, among others, in a beautifully wrought pencil drawing.
There are moments of sheer intensity. William Christenberry's color Polaroid photograph of himself, jaws clenched, next to one of his evocative southern constructions, reveals (not entirely by accident, one feels) some deep-set steel anger beneath the gentle surface of his personality. Patricia Tobacco Forrester, whose eyes and watercolor technique are more accustomed to scrutinizing exotic trees and flowers, here pins herself like a wide-eyed specimen to a paper surface. Rebecca Davenport cruelly scrutinizes her middle-aged body in a beautiful oil painting: She and it are redeemed by the light. Marvin Liberman, in "Self-Portrait IV," looks at his own gaunt face with romantic (the pain of being an artist) and hallucinogenic (the ecstasy of same) concentration.
There are magic moments: Joe White, an implausibly solid angel with his high-domed head. And relaxed ones: Alfred McAdams with his daughters in the soft light of a Virginia afternoon. There are portraits reminding us of Washington's past as an art-making city: Prentiss Taylor in 1949, showing four faces. And images that tell us, no joke, what serious, hard, dreamy work it is being an artist: Lisa Semerad, poised contemplatively with one pencil in hand and another, sharpened, close by.
It is hard to leave this show and not to believe in the vitality of the Washington art scene, a subject of perennial discussion that has intensified of late in the wake of the excellent Washington Area Show at the Corcoran (on view through July 14). Haslem's exhibition of self-portraits, not coincidentally, is another useful spinoff of that endeavor. The catalogue of the show, containing quite a few artists' statements about D.C., makes a small, interesting contribution to the ongoing dialogue.
Haslem's hours are 11:30 to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday. 'The Unschooled Artist'
"The Unschooled Artist: Expressions of the Folk, Visionary, and Isolated Artist" is an exhibition whose title suggests the need to be careful about definitions. When sophisticated artists strive to achieve something of the unadulterated freshness of the "naive" (a process with a long history in this century), and when "folk" artists are shown and sold in sophisticated galleries and museums (a process also with a history, though it has intensified in recent years), where are the boundaries?
The answers are not easy, but they are, usually, wordlessly evident in the art -- as one can see again in this show, the fourth of its kind in four years at the Anton Gallery on Capitol Hill (415 East Capitol St.). To look at an animal painted by Charley Kinney, with all of its raw vigor and startled presence, is not to mistake it for, say, a painting by West Coast sophisticate Roy De Forest, even though there are superficial resemblances. The same can be said of sculptures or paintings by Noah Kinney (Charley's brother), Mary T. Smith, Howard Finster, Earnest Patton, Ernest "Popeye" Reed or any of the other excellent artists in this show, who create their art out of an unmediated kind of need.
It also helps to be precise about biographical details: All of the artists here are indeed self-taught and have lived long lives distant from artistic or other cultural mainstreams. There is a local discovery in the show: Kyle Wahl of Capitol Hill, who is 84 and who paints Washington landmarks and street scenes and remembered images of West Virginia. The exhibit continues through July 7. Open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.