Washington's Tom Green is a painter who tells stories, or rather half-tells stories. Green's mysterious pictures with their hard-edged blocks of color and their insistent flatness look like Color Painting until you start to read them. Then they feel like dramas. But their narratives are incomplete, their protagonists ambiguous. He strews his art with clues.
His biggest painting at Middendorf's, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, is called "Big Picture With End Game." The title is just right -- although the almost-over, thought-fueled contest there before us takes place not on the chessboard, but in the viewer's mind. It's like the final chapter of a novel by Rex Stout: The early acts are over, and by now irretrievable. The last scene has begun. The killer, the detective, those accused unjustly, the surprising murder weapon and a few red herrings, too, have been summoned for the denouement. In the early 1970s, he made tableau vivant sculptures, and the setting here is stagelike, too, crowded, artificial. The complicated action, frozen for an instant, will continue in a moment. That plumb bob will begin to swing, that water drop will fall. All will soon be clear. But nothing is clear now.
Is that two-toned shape a skull? Is that central form a rough-barked tree, or a branched vein filled with blood? Is the odd weight on that plumb bob a swaddled infant, or a pebble, or some prehistoric Venus? And where are we, the audience? Are we seated in the orchestra or on the water, in a boat, a gondola, perhaps, tethered to that twisted pole? And what is going on?
A peculiar competition between the painter and the viewer, or bafflement and knowledge, intensifies the tension. Green's surprising picture commands contemplation. Read it as abstract, contemplate its colors, its spaces and its edges, or read it as a play and unmask its actors. Each line of inquiry invites, but not one delivers. Follow any avenue, and you will be turned back.
Green's blackly outlined colored shapes -- his rocket ships and rulers, his halos, wrung-out rags and tools with riveted connections -- are easy to perceive, hard to understand. And hard to forget. They stick to the memory like burrs.
Marcel Duchamp said that painters make only half their paintings. The viewer does the rest. This is surely true in Green's case. His paintings -- nicely poised between drama and abstraction, Color Painting and line drawing, depth and steamrolled flatness -- cajole participation.
Green, in the late 1970s, worked entirely in black and white, and leaned heavily on drawing. What is new about his recent work is its increasing ambiguity, and its reliance on color. He gives his stony backdrops here somber, earthy colors -- tans, moss greens and various grays, deep blue and yellow ocher -- so that the floating shapes before them -- of red, flesh-pink, cerulean blue -- seem so alive they shout.
Although his stony walls suggest those of Jasper Johns, and though his bold outlinings might recall Keith Haring's -- and though his formats and his colors feel distinctly Washingtonian -- Green's art is original. It is entirely his own. He has been teaching at the Corcoran since 1969. His paintings were included in the 1975 Whitney Biennial, and, in 1981, in "19 Americans" at the Guggenheim. This solo show is his 14th. It closes Dec. 4. Mussoff's Temptresses
Jody Mussoff's women look like no one else's. She says she invents them, but those she has portrayed in her color pencil drawings, now at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW, catch your eye so boldly, and stare at you so knowingly, they seem the stuff of life -- or, if not of life, of myths or fevered dreams. Mussoff calls them "girls" or "women." But she might well call them nymphs.
They all are up to something. They are sexy and they know it, but there is in their sexiness no trace of acquiescence. They are temptresses of sorts, though they never gush or flatter. And they seem attuned to wonders. "Woman Holding 2 Dogs" is as allied to those animals as a witch to her familiars. "Woman With Grapes" -- the grapes are in her hair, her perfect breasts are bare -- seems to be prepared for some Dionysian rite. In "Woman Holding Little Statues," she is covering their mouths as if to prevent them from speaking of her magic, but her gesture comes too late, the magic is already done, those statues, though of stone, have partly come to life.
Mussoff portrays witches, good witches perhaps, though the viewer who approaches them enamored of their beauty soon draws back in alarm. Their skin is strangely thin as if their bodies, unlike ours, were partially translucent. None are wholly nice. The "Woman With Rolling Pin" might be preparing pies, though potions seem more likely. At least one of her sisters holds a pumping human heart. A few of them are nude. The others wear backless ruffled dresses, or off-the-shoulder evening gowns, or shoulder-length green gloves. Their clothes are new-wave versions of what witches wore in Oz.
Someone ought to write a book on how female beauty -- signifying innocence, or sisterhood, or perhaps something darker -- has been used by female artists. A woman made these creatures up. Could a man have made such art? Mussoff's drawing is first-rate. Her show closes Dec. 7. Portraits Unfriendly
Gallery K is also showing recent work by Washington's Sidney Lawrence. By day he serves the Hirshhorn skillfully, politely, as the head of its press office. But concealed in his own art, underneath its friendliness, is a ragged edge.
In "Gentleman Sculptures," we see Lawrence and his friend Tom Birch, their faces painted gold, imitating Gilbert and George's living sculptures bit in a performance at the Corcoran. The rich, art-loving ladies that Lawrence treats so sweetly while on duty are not treated sweetly here. Their noses are a bit too long, their eye makeup too heavy, their neck skin is too loose. One's purse is being rifled. The viewer gathers she deserves it. "Aristos at Home," a three-dimensional painting framed in rep ties, Ike buttons and collar stays, offers us the family of former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, once the painter's boss. The Ripley portrait is not not wholly kind. But then neither are the many self-deprecating, sharp-toothed ones that Lawrence does of himself.
Lawrence is a traveler. Here he shows us he has been to New York and San Francisco, to St. Mark's and to the Mall. He is a bit of a cartoonist, but in his smile is a grimace, in his laughter there's a sob. His show, too, closes Dec. 7.