The Washington Project for the Arts, 400 Seventh St. NW, is now offering its public five separate exhibits, seven if you count the two on view in "Botswana," the WPA's bar. One, Haim Steinbach's sculpture show, is nicely crisp and witty; a second, of nine paintings by Baltimore's John Hull, is full of dust and patient warriors and quiet, deadpan violence; a third, of recent canvases by Washington's David Krueger, provides us with large portraits of unfamiliar creatures -- they seem to be related to hand grenades and sponges, and perhaps to blimps. Some are strangely hairy and a few have propellers. They float in alien seas.
There is, you might have gathered, not much that these shows share.
The one thing that unites them is the space maintained between them. Though four of these exhibits, in one way or another, deal with the out-of-doors, and though three have been connected by the title "Distant Landscapes," no two are alike. Krueger shows us alien worlds, Hull's paintings speak of war, and Washington's Steven Estrada portrays enigmatic objects, tree trunks that are columns, too, and birds that feel like spirits. Estrada shows us icons. John Wood's exhibition instead suggests a complicated map that leads us on a voyage through his subtle, layered mind.
The viewer who explores these varied exhibitions is repeatedly reminded of the isolated artist, out there on his own.
John Wood ought to be well known. If he were content, as so many artists are, with one medium only, of one image, or one path of thought, he would probably have earned by now the fame that's long eluded him. But he refuses to be cubbyholed. He draws, he sews, he photographs; he makes "wall books" and collages. He keeps us on our toes. He tickles us with rhymes and puns, and then urges us to meditate. He was born in California in 1922 and has taught for many years at Alfred University in Upstate New York. All his objects teach -- about Wood himself and about seeing.
Wood is an explorer of image-making systems. Here we see him play with the camera, the blueprint, the stencil and the sewing machine. At times he seems to work with two pencils in his hand. He has even been known to draw with an electric toothbrush, which becomes, as he employs it, a kind of stuttering machine. His images are never coarse, never overbearing. His photographs are striking and wholly unpretentious. His sweetly colored drawings -- of saw-toothed peaks and birds and beaches -- are full of air and sun and intellectual electricity. A fine mind is revealed by this admirable show. Its bills were paid in part by a grant from the Mark Rothko Foundation, which spends its funds supporting deserving older artists. Wood qualifies for sure.
If Wood's art leads us on, Haim Steinbach's stops us still. First it makes us grin. Then it makes us ponder. Imagine, if you can, an art point equidistant from the "Primary Structures" of Donald Judd, the Brillo boxes of Andy Warhol, and the "found objects" of Marcel Duchamp. Steinbach's sculptures are right there.
Beautifully constructed wedges of plywood and Formica jut out of the wall. They lend a sort of preciousness to the objects that sit on them -- "Fiestaware" water pitchers, boxes of Bold detergent, pairs of Nike running shoes or a kitschy lamp constructed from the hoofs of deer.
One piece, called "Pink Accent," presents a large pink plastic piggy bank and a pair of French machines for spraying insecticide. They are a bilious, Day-Glo green. As you look at these three objects, odd ideas fly off them. Their colors clash, their plumpness rhymes. Does money suggest poison? The pink pig, one observes, sports a French beret. These objects will improve with time. Fifty years from now they will surely be perceived as the weirdest of antiques.
John Hull, Steven Estrada and David Krueger, the three painters in "Distant Landcapes," explore their made-up worlds obsessively. Estrada's tree columns, each larger than a man, feel half-organic, half-machined. Their flutings make them suggest rough bark, or odd, columnar gears. What exactly are they made of? Wood or stone or flesh? The viewer is not sure. A woodpecker pecks one of them. The strange birds that Estrada paints own -- and activate -- the air.
Krueger's floating creatures are part pacific and part scary. They sometimes spurt black ink. They sometimes grow green hair. They seem to rule their realms the way green-blue algae once ruled ancient seas. Are they predatory or benign? Again one is not sure.
John Hull's art ponders soldiering, and colonial Third-World wars. The fighters he portrays are neither monstrous nor heroic. They stand around a lot. They smoke, they chat, they wait, they gaze into the distance -- and pay small attention to the corpses that surround them. "What I sought to describe in these paintings," he writes, "were ordinary men, at grips with contradictions -- men vulnerable to retribution, privation and death. Men who fought in war and who made every effort to limit its ravages by being victorious. They exist in dusty landscapes beneath slate-dark skies. The world, their lives, are gray."
"Botswana" is showing the Joseph Cornell-like boxes of Washington's Richard Skinner and the ambiguous, figurative paintings of Paula Schumann. The WPA's winter exhibitions close March 22.