It is some measure of how things have changed over the past two decades that "Myth & Ritual," the show of work by nine black Washington artists at Touchstone Gallery, is at first indistinguishable from any other group show of high quality. The angry, fist-shaking images that dominated black art of the '60s have long since been replaced with endlessly varied works of high sophistication and expressive power.
But University of Maryland art professor Keith Morrison, who organized this show, believes that a common denominator still exists among many black artists here: notably, a concern with myths and rituals, and with art that evokes "the more general spirit of cultures."
He easily makes his point in this elite sampling, though he stretches it a bit far in the case of Sam Gilliam, who is clearly here to add heft to the show, rather than out of any expressed concern with either myth or ritual. Likewise, the handsome, chunky assemblages fashioned from picture frames and window frames by Denise Ward Brown make very strong abstract statements, but seem irrelevant to the theme at hand. So is the environmental ceramic explosion by Martha Jackson-Jarvis, which covers a wall and extends to the adjoining ceiling and floors, radiating energy all the way. But then, who would want to miss any of these works?
We come to the point in Michael Platt's altar-like installation, which clearly sets out to evoke the "general spirit of cultures," especially "primitive" cultures. Fashioned from bound twigs, it quite specifically -- perhaps too specifically -- suggests some sort of ritual offering.
And Jerome Meadows' laminated wood sculpture is loaded with iconic overtones, as are Yvonne Pickering Carter's draped, stained canvas wall pieces from her "Tabernacle" and "Shrine" series, which make generic Christian references.
Percy Martin, in powerful etchings like "Confrontation," continues to spin out highly personal narrative myths that evoke primal feelings (like fear) in a style that recalls both African art and archaic rock carvings.
Only Howard University professor Frank Evan Smith seems to deal even obliquely with the Afro-American cultural experience (unless you read into Sylvia Snowden's expressionist paintings some anguished reflection of the black struggle, which I do not). Smith's free-form, stitched, painted and patchwork canvas wall pieces hark back to the quilts handmade by his grandmother, and by the generations of black women who preceded her, here and in Africa.
Though it must be noted that the subjects of myth and ritual have caught the imaginations of many nonblack artists as well, there may be something to the notion that the search for ancient roots in Africa, so instrumental in the restoration of black American pride, also has turned up a rich vein of artistic inspiration.
This show, one of Touchstone's finest, will continue through March 16 at 2130 P St. NW. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Forrester's Altered Approach
Patricia Tobacco Forrester, well known hereabouts for her mega-watercolors of woods and forest glens (some sprawling over as many as six giant sheets of paper), is showing new paintings at Fendrick Gallery that suggest a change in her point of view -- literally. Until now Forrester has worked most often with close-in views of gardens and forest floors, usually observed from above. Here, in paintings created on the spot in places as varied as Trinidad, Captiva Island and New England, Forrester has not only backed away from her trees and flora, taking in the longer view, but also has looked up, adding the infinitely changing sky to her subject matter and palette. "East Alstead Birches," which catches both brilliant sky and multifarious colors of bark observed in dappled light, is an especially fine example.
But a more profound change also has taken place: Whether caused by the heat of the tropical sun or by the simple desire to explore new realms, Forrester has occasionally let go of the purely literal approach to create images that teeter on the brink of fantasy. In "Remembering a Tree in Avignon," for example, trees are improbably (and rather awkwardly) laced with yellow blossoms. And in "Vaulted Crab-Apple," oversize red hibiscus are inserted into the foreground, looking like a huge corsage among the trees.
Inevitably, some of these experimental works are better than others. Among the best: "Dark Branches," with its tangle of purpled morning glories, and "Canna Lilies and the Antlered Tree," the latest and strongest of this new suite of work.
The show will continue at 3059 M St. NW through March 8. Hours at Fendrick are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Tom Williams' 'Brushworks'
"Art's Not Funny," according to the title of one of Tom Williams' "brushworks" at Henri Gallery. But don't believe it. Working with dozens of old-fashioned bristle brushes -- the sort used for scrubbing floors -- New York designer Williams works in many formats. Sometimes he lays out several brushes in square grids (bristle side up), frames them, drips paint over the surface and gives them titles like "Needs More Red." And sometimes he sandwiches a five-foot square of brushes between two squares of plywood slathered with thickened black paint and calls it "Big Sandwich." One large hinged piece (bristle side down) seems to move across the floor like a giant crawlie.
This work isn't profound, but it is amusing, and there are always other interesting new things to see at Henri, like the unusual garden sculpture made from stacked forms of cast concrete, by Stuart Fink from Cincinnati, and the table-top water sculpture in bronze by Brenda Brown, who teaches at Wellesley College. Williams' work will be on view through March 5 at 1500 21st St. NW. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays 2 to 6. Ethnic Art at Spectrum
Spectrum Gallery is another of the growing number of galleries open on Sunday afternoons. The city's oldest co-op is located at 1132 29th St. NW in Georgetown. Currently featured, through March 6, are figurative oils of various ethnic groups by Selma Cohen, but works by 27 other gallery members are also always on view. Sunday hours are 2 to 5 p.m.; weekday hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to to 5 p.m.