"There's trouble in paradise," writes artist Tom Nakashima in the margins of one of his new paintings in the group exhibition at the Anton Gallery, 415 East Capitol St. The sentiment tersely characterizes the mood of the show as a whole, bravely titled "No Compromise," consisting of recent works by eight painters (four from Washington, three from Richmond and one from Baltimore) selected by John Figura, himself an Expressionist painter.
This gnawing sense of a social compact having gone awry is the strongest element of the Neo-Expressionist impulse that has swept the western art world and the one that most differentiates it from the original Expressionist movement that flourished in Germany from 1910 to 1925. It is also a primary component of the strongest art in this show.
The brooding turn that Nakashima's art has taken in recent years is superbly summed up in the painting "Mermaid." In it he gives about equal weight to a dark American flag (white stars on a black ground, black and dark gray stripes) and to the frontal female nude that has become a stock figure in his work (this time with a heavily painted, dark fishtail). The equivalence of the defaced icons is meaningful: just as the nude functions as a symbol of the classical ideal in western art, so the flag works as a reminder of social and political ideals. The pair make up a gloomily beautiful -- a mournful -- painting.
The intention behind Nakashima's ravishing six-panel screen painting "Self-Portrait as a Sea-Monster Contemplating the Moon" is not so obvious. But the pathos of the situation is thoroughly persuasive. Peeking through giant Hokusai waves at a strangely resplendent gilded sky, the "monster" simultaneously suggests primordial vigor and postnuclear innocence.
None of the other artists has yet attained Nakashima's poise or depth. Wolfgang Jasper is the most impressive image maker of the group. In his large "Open Heart Surgery," a routinely amazing surgical procedure is transformed into an allegory of social control and technological torture, as if the rational doctors in Thomas Eakins' "The Gross Clinic" had, in the course of a century, gone absolutely mad. Although weakened by his virulently macabre imagination -- this is rough stuff but it also is fairly simple -- Jasper's narrative purposes are well served by his strong, and quite conventional, compositions.
By comparison, Wayne Fitzgerald's paintings are like visual one-liners. In his "Between What We Know and What We Believe," for instance, the gap between real and ideal is a river upon which helplessly floats a boat containing a cartoony classical column. Brian King's huge "Brevita III," depicting a mournful nun along with ghostlike (and nunlike) rock forms in a devastated landscape, is perhaps too patently mysterioso, but it has emotional impact to go along with its Orozco-like scale.
David Brown's "One More Step Will Be the Death of Me," a striking blue skeletal ballroom dancer, is an oft-told story that injects a note of humor into an otherwise humorless show. Richard Ford's grisaille imaginings, "Sex Basement Bedroom" and "Eight Candles" -- though, again, rather too pat -- suggest ways in which Surrealist dream imagery can be cross-fertilized with Expressionist subjectivity.
Robyn Johnson-Ross and Delores Milmoe seem vaguely out of place in this upside-down world. Johnson-Ross is the poet of the group. Her lushly painted canvases of horses in stalls suggest Franz Marc without the exultation -- an aqueous, underwater sort of Marc with an undercurrent of dreamy frustration, for the horses cannot seem to reach their feed bins (which are, in any case, empty). Alone in this company, Milmoe edges toward the abstract, redemptive side of Expressionism, though the strong, enigmatic shapes that punctuate the brushy surfaces of her canvases, "Reaper" and "Cretan Feud," do suggest the nagging presence of disruptive man-made forces even in a world of pure forms.
The exhibition will be open through July from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, and during August by appointment. Claire Seidl at the Wentworth
Claire Seidl, a New York painter who is part of the "new talent" exhibition at the Wallace Wentworth Gallery, 2006 R St. NW, approaches the Expressionist tradition from its Kandinsky, abstracted-from-nature direction. Her large "Hoop Snake Sisters" is a strangely riveting picture, with its unlikely color combinations of sherbet oranges and pinks with acid yellows and blood-red lines on violet grounds. The painting is a study in continuous motion and this, too, helps to account for its haunting quality. Through July 27, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Sculpture by Harris Rubin
Each of the massive objects made by sculptor Harris Rubin on view at the Osuna Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, takes the form of an "easel" (strong steel legs and cross-members) upon which is set a "painting" (a big rectangular sheet of steel that has been bent, folded, dented, burnished and, usually, painted). This is an adroit mental game. The pieces are meant insidiously to occupy two worlds at the same time: that of sculpture (for they are impressive three-dimensional objects) and that of painting (for they emphatically call attention to subtleties of color and surface).
In actuality many of the works are marred by a disturbing imbalance: Rubin obviously has gone to a huge amount of trouble simply in order to create rather pretty surface effects. There are two notable exceptions. In "Frame of Reference," the colored struts of the "easel's" superstructure jut in front of the "painting," and this sets up a lively play of surface and form. And in "Gantry" the two seem in perfect balance. This is ironic, because "Gantry" is one of only two pieces in the show (the other is "Rembrandt's Easel") that seem not to have been painted at all. Its colors and textures are due entirely to burnishing and rusting. Through July, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.