The special light of certain places infects the pictures made there. The cutouts of Matisse, though partially abstract, glow with all the brightness of sunny southern France. The antique Book of Kells, awesome and meticulous, suggests the misty Hebrides, much as paintings by New Yorkers, so often black and white, recall the daylong dimness of that shadowed city. Stanley Sporny's haunting pictures, now hanging at Osuna's, 406 Seventh St. NW, derive much of their strangeness from the way that they evoke not one landscape but two.
Many depict Washington, Dupont Circle in particular, but in an alien light. The air is moister than it ought to be, the foliage heavier, the skies are tropic skies. There is an explanation: Though Sporny used to live here and knows this city well, all the pictures at Osuna's were painted in Sri Lanka. They smell of cloves and curry. For the Washington they show us is a Washington of memory altered by the climate of that far-off, scented land.
No city dust dulls Sporny's cars; they have the shininess of pebbles seen through flowing streams. His streets feel rain-washed, too. Sporny's traffic lights are emerald-green, his tail lights are ruby-red. These lights look remembered; they are not the ones we see.
Sri Lanka, although lovely, is an island torn by civil war. The Tamils slaughter Hindus there, as well as vice versa, and the violence of the place throbs in Sporny's art. Huge tanks squat like toads on Sporny's Dupont Circle; the front window of that Metrobus has been pierced by bullet holes; the driver of a shiny car rolls his window down to hurl insults at the viewer; one young addict shoots another beneath the Circle's leafy trees.
Sporny's city-dwellers, like those portrayed by Robert Longo, seem to dance in anguish. Often they are armed. Yet despite the violence in them, Sporny's streetscapes remain beautiful. They glow with colored light. Time and time again, the skill with which this highly gifted artist uses creamy oil paint to show a rain-washed pavement, the bright chrome of a hubcap or a streetlight seen at dusk takes the breath away.
Sporny's vicious actors all play minor roles. Their violence is defeated by the beauty of the sets that they inhabit. The paintings at Osuna's feel like nightmares dreamed in paradise. They'll be on view through Feb. 12. Kendall Buster at Middendorf
Washington's Kendall Buster had a marvelous debut. She was an unknown in her twenties when her dramatic, room-sized installation of red and white and black proved the unexpected hit of a survey at the Hirshhorn. Though now studying at Yale, she's retained her ties to Washington. Her first commercial solo show is on view at Middendorf's, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW.
The largest work displayed, the installation she calls "Circuit," is a sort of treatise on seeing and perspective. It is not entirely successful. Buster's strict ideas, though they may have seemed tight and right in thought, have lost much in translation into three dimensions. Her four hand-built walls feel a little thicker than they need to be. And the plastic mirrors on them, slightly warped, give to their reflections a mood of fun-house silliness that could not have been intended. Euclid, figuring his proofs on the shores of Greece, may well have experienced a similar disappointment seeing his transcendent forms, his perfect lines and angles, scratched there roughly in the sand.
Buster seems to be insisting -- and the thought has merit -- that both memory and anticipation are involved in seeing, that art need not depend on single-point perspective or on one privileged point of view. But the viewer who is asked to peer through this slot, then through that one, soon finds himself distracted by the angle of that lighting fixture or by that poorly painted edge. One feels one is exploring a kind of simple maze rather than encountering a complex of ideas.
The crisp paintings done in black and white that surround the installation -- because they are diagrams -- function more effectively. Among their arrows and their lines are images of mystery -- a nude, a sewing needle, a meditating sage -- and they linger in the mind. Even more impressive are the graphite drawings done on vellum on display upstairs. Buster's pictures evoke both the strictness of Malevich and the topsy-turvy world of Dr. Caligari. When she manages, in sculpture, to find the correct balance between mystery and rigor, abstract thought and theatrics, the promise of her Hirshhorn piece will surely be fulfilled. Her show at Middendorf closes Feb. 8. Hellmuth and Reynolds Exhibit
Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds, her husband (he is the director of the WPA), are exhibiting together at the Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW. They are showing photo pieces that they made together in 1981 and 1982 when they worked in California beside San Francisco Bay. They seem perfectly in tune. Their collaboration is so smooth this might be a one-person show.
The pictures on the wall juxtapose, with grace, images of fishing -- the boat, the hook, mist upon the water, the still-wet staring eye. Those who have admired Reynolds' handsome installations of other artists' work will not be surprised to see the images on view most skillfully arrayed. Perhaps it is their subject -- fishing done for fun -- that makes this work feel rather lightweight, more elegant than moving, more amusing than profound.
Their photographs are black and white. The way the artists balance grays and well-proportioned rectangles and the white space between pictures shows their understanding of two-dimensional design. Their arrangements lead the viewer's eye; the artists edit with much skill. Their visual puns are pleasing, too: the smooth curve of a fish's back echoes that of the cable holding up the Golden Gate; the shape of a dead shark's fin rhymes with that of a hull.
They write: "We have emphasized implicit values pertaining to human presence in natural and human-made aspects of the environment." Okay. Though occasionally their images -- a dark, salt-stiffened rope entering dark water or seaweed on wet sand -- linger in the memory, these are crisp, eye-pleasing documents, but not much more than that. Their show runs through February.