A cartoon duck invites you into the Anton Gallery, 415 East Capitol St. Inside, a sign festooned with fish informs you that you are in the presence of Allen Carter's work. In this eclectic exhibition Carter, a 39-year-old Washingtonian known to many as "Big Al," celebrates life and art -- and fishing -- with all his usual gusto.
Carter's fishermen, on the banks of the Potomac or the Chesapeake, sit still and iconic as Buddhas while all about them writhes the energy of his expressionist colors.
A closer look reveals not so much fishing as autobiography: "The Fish I Have for You Today" is a simple and moving portrait of a black man offering a basket of fish to the viewer. His serious face, like most of those in Carter's paintings, is preoccupied with the business of life. There is also a tiny figure sitting hunched over a fishing line. "That's me," says Big Al. And the man offering the fish? "My father," he explains.
Personal experience is the key to Carter's art. When his work is autobiographical, he fuses energy, ebullience and wit with an underlying seriousness that gives this layered work a memorable resonance. This is particularly true of "Maxtan. N.C." (the home of Carter's father), and "Fishing For the Color Blue."
These works are not just paintings: They are also bas-reliefs, collages and sculptures in which Carter amalgamates paint, sculpted shapes and found objects. In "Maxtan. N.C.," layers of impasto color, CAUTION road signs and dayglo sparklers obscure but do not conceal a hound dog, a fetishistic mask and four people imbued with the gravity Carter gives his figures. The painting, layered metaphorically as well as physically, is a visual experience charged with mystery and memory.
When not inspired by personal experience, Carter's objects become finger exercises with lifeless bravura. A exception among the smaller works is an imaginary portrait of Josef Albers' wife Anni, a piece that began with Carter's musings on Albers' color theories. This work deftly reveals that Carter is not all instinct, as he would sometimes have us believe (remember Sen. Sam Irvin's "I'm just a country lawyer"?), but an artist increasingly confident of his own voice. His show closes Feb. 26. Brunner & Garbe at McIntosh/Drysdale
The McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, is showing painter Wilfred Brunner and watercolorist William Garbe, both of Washington.
Where life experience motivates Carter's art, iconology is Brunner's primary subject. His paintings explore the relationships between signs, or between words and images. The stylized symbols (a boat, the moon) he paints on flat fields of color are contrasted with captions artfully incorporated into the design.
Often Brunner's work seems conceptually trivial despite the skill and polish of its execution. His images are so stylized they become neutral (instead of universal), and his words seem more calligraphic than significant. About all one learns from these self-conscious juxtapositions is that the artist is interested in nature and has a liking for Djuna Barnes and Bob Dylan.
Drawing, a more flexible and modest medium, would seem more appropriate for such explorations, and Brunner's drawings, while variations on the same theme, are much more successful.
William Garbe is showing eight large watercolors (average size 4 by 6 feet). His ostensible subject is waterfowl, although there also are two large and lovely lobsters in his show.
The emphasis is on the physical, on lush surfaces, beautiful colors, and delicate textures. In Garbe's work, as in Brunner's, there is not much else beside skillful craft, though in a more commercial context, say on the walls of a corporate office, these decorative watercolors might look sumptuously elegant. 'Views of Mount Fuji'
"Views of Mount Fuji," an intimate and lovely show at the Shogun Gallery, 1083 Wisconsin Ave. NW, includes 40 woodblock prints made between 1850 and 1950 by 10 "Ukiyo-e" masters. Fuji, put in various settings as if it were a jewel, serves these artists as a spiritual metaphor of the Japanese landscape.
Robert Adams, the photographer, once listed "geography, autobiography and metaphor" as the three "verities" of landscape. Geography is much in evidence. Time is present, too. Fuji is seen in the early morning, late evening, winter, summer and the "Red Autumn."
The reclusive and somber "Moonlight at Shishama Beach," done by Fuyo in 1920, is particularly fine. His muted colors, grays and blues, delineate a moonlit waterscape in which Fuji is barely discernible behind clouds.
A number of these artists saw Fuji as a metaphor for memory and history. Several stunning narrative pieces by Kuniyoshi and his student, the equally famous Yoshitoshi, depict the feats of legendary warriors. Both of these artists render the human figure with lines quivering with energy. The narrative is carried by a supple use of writing within the image, a current preoccupation of some Western artists.
Several of these prints employ pictures-within-a-picture (also often a motif of contemporary western art). One, done by Toshikata in 1900, recalls the memory of a couples' visit to a Fuji shrine. It is a wood block of two pictures, one of the shrine, another of a couple. (The man, while dressed in a kimono, also sports a western fedora!) Surrounding the two images are personal belongings that might be on a dressing table -- hairpins, pocket change and the like. The show closes Jan. 31.