Washington's John Dickson makes detritus dance. Junk of all descriptions -- broken mirrors, bridal gowns, tentacles and toys, dead birds, dead fish and oyster shells -- fills his grand exhibit now at Wallace Wentworth, 2006 R St. NW. No other sculptor working in this clean and formal city can do what Dickson does. He choreographs chaos. He conjures mythic music and high orchestral order from what in lesser hands would be a rank, godawful mess.
From scavenged spiral stairs, from torn-up record jackets and bits of wind-up gramophones, Dickson somehow conjures a fiery, blooming rose. He makes typewriters temples. There's an alligator in the fireplace; a huge and antlered head hangs above the mantelpiece; a gigantic yellow serpent slithers overhead. Shards from broken mirrors multiply the messiness. Yet harmony is in charge.
Once upon a time, using sticks and dowels, Dickson made abstractions, delicate constructions that had some of the chic wildness of postwar New York painting. Today his art tells stories, old and layered tales. We know most of them by heart.
Eden is one central subject of his show. God's hand and God's book are here, and His forbidden fruit. That serpent, though satanic, is innocent as Ollie, the endearing one-toothed dragon on the antique TV kids' show. That small, reclining lamblike deer has a lion's golden mane. Dickson's eerie objects broadcast layered messages. All their parts tell stories, and the stories overlap. Dread and exaltation are blended in his show. That strange forbidden fruit is part woman, part winged weapon.
There's an arbor in the doorway. Beyond it stand a bride and groom as if at an altar. Her head is her bouquet, her husband is part sphinx. The flowers that surround them are not exactly flowers. That old horn from a gramophone is leaning toward the fire as if in search of sun.
Dickson rescues trash most of us would throw away -- broken claw-foot tables, light bulbs shaped like flames, coy and corny lamps. He somehow makes junk poignant. He says one of his goals is to restore the "lost dignity of kitschy things."
Dickson is impatient still with the cleanliness and order that rule the art of Washington. But he's begun to welcome that strong sense of history, of memory and precedent, that's felt throughout this town. His sculptures once suggested bursts of energy. Now they feel like monuments. The eye that climbs the stairs of his typewriter keyboards might discover monsters, holy books or dark winged angels. His art has always been formally impressive. But it has never been so rich in narrative allusion. This is a most imposing show. It closes April 5.
Paintings by Sherry Kasten Sanabria
Sherry Zvares Kasten, who recently became the wife of Washington sculptor Robert Sanabria, has taken his melodious name. She has also changed her art. Once her pictures led us into shadowy construction sites, or empty rooms or churches. But her new acrylic paintings, now on view at Baumgartner's, 2016 R St. NW, no longer lure us into darkness. These are pictures bright with sun. Sanabria's exhibit is called "Mexico: The Walls."
With Georgia O'Keeffe just dead, one cannot help recalling here the thick adobe wall with the double inset door that she portrayed so often. Like O'Keeffe, Sanabria finds the hot, harsh light of the Southwest calming, irresistible; and their wallscapes somehow force us back onto ourselves. But there the likeness ends. O'Keeffe made that double door a kind of private icon, an intimate abstraction; no one lived behind it, it existed beyond time. Sanabria's old walls of pink and green and yellow speak, with specificity, of people, time and place.
The place is San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The people are the Mexicans who have used these streets for ages, who have worn paths down those tiled walks, and crumbled those old curbs, and scarred and patched and scarred again those warm old plaster walls. The people are not portrayed, but their presences are felt. We feel their caution in the bars they have placed outside their windows; their telephones are ringing (there are wires overhead); we know they are there.
These paintings have much formal strength. They are rich with grids and parallels, and their shadows form diagonals. Their earth tones have been nicely tuned (and sometimes nicely contrasted by a band of deep blue sky), yet we never read these pictures as if they were abstractions. They are too filled up with memory, with sympathy -- and praise -- for a land the artist loves. These unpretentious paintings (though diminished by their plastic frames) are sure, strong and good looking. They will be on view through April 5.
Frank, Haley at Addison/Ripley
The Addison/Ripley Gallery (behind the Phillips Collection at 9 Hillyer Court NW) is showing recent landscapes by Barbara Frank of Washington and new wall-hung sculptures by Nade Haley, who once lived here but has since moved to New York. Frank depicts the Sinai. Haley's works suggest a half-Shakespearean dream.
Frank has based her drawings on photographs she took "on a short and highly charged" camping trip into that ancient desert. Hot sun burns the reddish stones. Almost nothing grows. Occasionally we see a figure in the distance, but that figure appears lost, and our eyes wander, too, through shadowed canyons, over timeworn rocks, down antique, pebbled paths. Those folded stones suggest old ghosts (are those faces hidden in them?), but Frank's anxious marks permit no rest; the eye wanders on. "In these primitive places I have learned a sense of my history previously buried," she writes. "If I lived in another time, perhaps it was here." Frank is also showing pictures of the Sinai at the Jewish Community Center, Rockville.
Haley's works are strangely stagey. I am not sure what she is getting at. Her objects call to mind imprecise suggestions of old and far-off places -- Verona, say, or Elsinore. Romeo and Hamlet would feel right at home among the angled doorways, pointed arches, raked planes and arcades of her shadow-casting flats. Her shadows are ambiguous. Some are thrown by cutout forms, some (they look like spotlight beams) are painted on. Her show, and Frank's, will be on view through April 5.