Figurative painter David Hollowell operates much like a set designer and choreographer in his current exhibition at Jane Haslem Gallery. Starting with a group of fine, crosshatched graphite drawings, he first works out poses for his leading players -- in this show, all dancer/models in leotards -- and then fine tunes the final arrangement of figures as they ultimately appear in "La Galleria," the 20-foot-long oil painting that is the centerpiece of this show.
In it, seven very carefully arranged models stand, lean and sit in a large, frescoed room (perhaps a palace-turned-museum), as if waiting for the curtain to rise. But the problem is the curtain never rises, and the drama never begins. The figures are frozen in a timeless, classically balanced panorama of poses that neither move nor affect the viewer in any meaningful way. It is apparently the figure-as-still-life that really intrigues Hollowell, an aspect of his work that has become more exaggerated during a year spent in the Netherlands, still-life capital of the world.
It is not altogether surprising, then, that the liveliest aspect of this painting comes not from the live models, but from two marble statues that stand atop truncated classical pillars at the center of the painting. Contemporary and unidealized in their relaxed nude poses and hairdos, they appear to be in animated conversation with each other, and altogether more "real" than the isolated, real, live models. These marble figures provide not only a welcome focal point in this vast expanse of paint, but also a nice little conceptual twist on the question of what's classical and what's not, and what's more "alive," people or art.
Though flawed, this is an impressive painting, not only for its gigantic size, but for its atmospheric brushwork and the suppressed rendering of the monochromatic old master frescoes reproduced (if with some perspectival confusion) on the walls.
There are other smaller paintings in this show, notably "Interior With Figure, Table, Chair," from which a woman in a fussily painted white leotard looks out pensively, chin on fist, surrounded by spare furniture and beautifully stippled green and brown walls. Again, the inanimate aspects of this painting are what triumph, and the fact that Hollowell's paintings can survive nicely without any figures at all is proven by a small painting next to it, titled "Still Life With Two Chairs."
The influence of still-life painter William Bailey upon Hollowell, his student at Yale, still seems to be pervasive, though Bailey gives his paintings of humble crockery considerably more warmth and mood than Hollowell seems able to muster for his figures. So, in fact, did Hollowell himself in his debut at Haslem three years ago, a better show that dealt with intrinsically more interesting subject matter. One huge painting of himself and his friends at an art opening seemed to invade the very room we were in by using trompe l'oeil effects. "La Galleria," in fact, attempts to do the same thing with its trompe l'oeil columns, which are meant to stand on the floor, but the attempt has been foiled by an ill-conceived installation.
For evidence of Hollowell's skill and talent, one need only look at the splendid graphite self-portrait on view in the present show. For evidence of some new profundity of content and clarity of direction, however, we shall have to wait. These paintings and drawings by Hollowell, who now teaches at the University of California at Davis, will continue at Haslem, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Jan. 25. Hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, 11:30 to 3:30, Saturdays noon to 5. Myra Henry Retrospective
Too often, the full sweep of an artist's accomplishment remains unheralded in her own lifetime. Virginia sculptor Myra Culpepper Henry had an army of friends and colleagues who knew full well the depth and quality of her work, but after her death from a crippling disease last April, they determined to set the public record straight as well. A major retrospective of her sculpture was organized last fall at the Athenaeum in Alexandria, and was then moved to the Kornblatt Gallery, where it is now on view. Henry's friends were right: This is an artist -- and a woman -- we should like to have known better.
She grew to maturity before the official flowering of the women's movement, but her full-scale carved female figures, such as "A Woman, a Wife, a Life," "The Dowry" and "Bride II," deal with the essence of a woman's life, often with poignancy, sometimes with humor, as in the hilarious "Beauty Queen." Her chunky carving style, often combined with assemblage elements, somehow combined both a Mexican and European folk-art approach with that of sculptor Marisol. In the end, however, her art is unique and highly personal.
So was her message. Once a fashion illustrator, both in Chicago and Washington, Henry saw "restrictiveness" in the wooden gowns and robes and necklaces and headdresses in which her often mummy-like figures seem trapped. Because of their solidity, the skirts are often used to evoke other dimensions of meaning, such as the drawers built into the skirt of "The Dowry" and filled with small objects of memory, or the skirt in "Mother's Day," which provides a window with heads of sleeping children inside.
The woman in the powerful "Mother's Day" also wears a wooden corsage, one of several extraordinary carved flowers that turn up throughout the show, recalling a specifically Alpine folk skill. One of Henry's finest carvings -- possibly her masterpiece -- is a head of a woman with a flapper haircut wearing such a flower in her hair. She also wears the same trance-like expression that gives such a special quality to all Henry's work.
One has the sense that this work will turn up again in the larger context of women's art of mid- and late-20th-century America, once some time has passed and perspective been established. Meanwhile, the show can be seen through today at Kornblatt Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, where hours are 10:30 to 5:30.