Washington's Joe Shannon -- painter, sculptor, draftsman, exhibition organizer, portraitist and writer -- is, by art world standards, something of a classicist. In the early 1970s, while other artists here were staining color fields, Shannon was producing figurative pictures that called to mind Degas. His exhibits at the Hirshhorn -- of Edwin Dickinson, R.B. Kitaj and "Representation Abroad" -- have been shows of thoughtful scholarship. Figures from the world of art (John Ashbery, Diane Arbus, Gene Baro and Picasso) and figures from mythology (Diana of the crescent moon; Actaeon the hunter; lustful, horned Pan) appear often in his art.
So, too, does Joe Shannon. He is an inveterate self-portraitist. His bearded, balding head -- meditating, glaring, sometimes even singing -- confronts the viewer everywhere in his rich show at Jane Haslem's, 406 Seventh St. NW.
Shannon is in many ways a classicist, but one aspect of his art is not classical at all.
The 38 objects on display -- oils, watercolors, charcoals, drawings done in ink, painted terra cottas -- date from 1972 to 1985. They reject the calm, the measured. An electrical intensity -- a jittery impatience sometimes close to fury -- quivers in this art.
Shannon's nudes aren't nude, but naked. His chaste Diana is a killer. His criminals in handcuffs are more smug than contrite. His painted "Auschwitz Victim" sculptures of 1981 evoke less pity than repulsion. One can almost catch their stench.
It is as if he cannot tolerate a bland, complacent viewer. His pictures -- like Diana's dogs dragging down poor Actaeon -- leap at you enraged and grab you by the throat.
The viewer, recoiling, may charge that Shannon's war is really with himself, that when he paints he wrestles with all the angers and affections, the lusts and the disgusts, surging through his mind.
At times his work seems rushed, as if he cannot bear to linger on a thought. One of the oddest paintings here, "The Garden (The Tempest)" of 1985, shows a nude beneath a tree. The distracted Adam next to her has Joe Shannon's face. The garden is not Eden. Bloody brush strokes dot the ground; the foliage above is a slashing chaos of green paint.
When Shannon depicts flowers, he confronts them with a skull. When he portrays a woodland nymph, he makes us fear her knife. His restlessness, his rage, pierces his contrivances. His show closes Oct. 19. Ellen MacDonald
Ellen MacDonald, 30, is, or rather was, one of Washington's most promising young painters. She moved to Brooklyn Sunday. Three of her new paintings, each set in a bedroom, are now on exhibition at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), 404 Seventh Street NW. They are odd and haunted pictures, not easily forgotten. Our loss is New York's gain.
If you shut your eyes and see blood-red behind your eyelids, or open them again in a darkened bedroom lit only by the ghastly glow from a black-and-white TV, you will know the colors of her paintings. They are not the hues of sunny Washington, but those of sleepless nights.
There is a mattress on the floor, a TV in the corner, an open book, a chair. The room is small and mean. And it is filled with dreams -- dreams of death and anger and contorted corpses in Mecca's desecrated shrines.
Much new New York art is quick, immediately accessible, as sudden as an ad. But MacDonald's art is slow. She overpaints her pictures, so that, as you stare into them, you see not one work, but three.
At the bottom is a large, '60ish abstraction -- a round target of the sort made by Kenneth Noland, or a set of stripes in monochrome, like those done by Frank Stella. Next comes a figure painting -- a pile of fresh corpses -- that hides, but not completely, the hard-edged work beneath. These figures seem derived from news photographs depicting the scores of pilgrims killed when radicals attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. Finally, above the dead, one sees the darkened bedroom. The figure huddled in the sheets, and the handless bedside clock, and the deep red of the air, suggest the crawling hours between midnight and dawn.
MacDonald's pictures hold one's gaze. The stories they relate are hinted at, not stated. Order yearned for, order lost, faith and faith destroyed, the distant and the near, are layered in her art. Her paintings are intensely felt, imposing. They will be on view through Oct. 19. Barbara Sexton
Barbara Sexton, 37, moved to Washington a year ago when her husband, a Navy pilot, was transferred here from San Diego. "Drawn to D.C." is the title of her current exhibition at the WPA. Its nine layered drawings are records of her voyage. Their message is not fresh. In her year in Washington, she has not learned a lot -- or, rather, one suspects, she has discovered here exactly what she thought she'd find long before she left Southern California.
Her Washington (she despises it) is the Washington she sees in the news shows on TV. It is a city of monuments and warriors -- of fluted columns, aircraft carriers, submarines, torpedos, tombstones, human bones, hand grenades and jets. You get the idea. The only people in her drawings -- except, of course the warriors and the victims of our war machine -- are pumped-up body builders showing off their might.
If she has ever seen Anacostia, Mount Pleasant, Rock Creek Park, the Eastern Market or the zoo, you would never guess it. Maybe she moved to the Pentagon. That building -- and the poisonous snake hissing there -- appear often in her art.
The gallery floor is covered with gravel and green plastic grass, suggestive of the Mall. Her drawings are done on maps. The hangman's noose she has drawn, on the map that shows downtown, surrounds -- surprise! -- the White House. Her show closes Oct. 19.