Andrea Way's drawings are diagrams of mysteries. They're layered with encryptions the observer can't quite read.
This one seems a star chart. That one a map. The viewer who explores these data-laden pictures -- now on view at Brody's Gallery, 1706 21st St. NW -- is asked to do so closely, methodically and calmly, as if he were an engineer riddling a microchip, or a cipher-solving spy. What letters in what language do those strange markings spell? The squigglings suggest sequential number systems; see how they repeat? These codes could be deciphered, if one only had the key.
But the key remains elusive. The longer one pursues it, the further it seems. Way's drawings call on logic and then make logic dance. Their surfaces seem sensible, but there's music at their core.
Some portion of their spirit is peculiarly Washingtonian. Two centuries have passed since Maj. Pierre L'Enfant clamped his strict Cartesian grid, his A-B-C-D streets, on this city's steaming swamps. He stamped wildness with order and set a sort of precedent: Our artists accept chaos as long as it's restrained.
Gene Davis chose to jail his wild whimsicalities in sequences of stripes. Tom Downing forced his strange and unfamiliar colors into rigid grids and planks. Sam Gilliam today improvises freely, but does so in the presence of crisp triangles and arcs.
Way relies on systems. Like some politician whose loony disputations are governed by the laws of parliamentary procedure, she regulates her whims. She might begin a drawing by plunging into chaos, with a rubbing or a scribble or by pouring colored inks on the whiteness of the paper. But then she turns against that chaos, building her drawings over it in accordance with strict codes.
Sometimes she swings compass arcs; sometimes she builds hexagons. Like Jonathan Borofsky, sometimes she coats her sheets with numbers or with unfamiliar markings (+, , and ) that seem to replace the numerals we know. She might work from left to right, or from right to left; she might inscribe her messages in diagonals or spirals. Each time she starts a drawing, she invents her codes anew. She admits those codes are "nutty," but their nuttiness is tamed by order, by obedience, because once her laws are handed down she follows them submissively, adding layer after layer, laboriously, meticulously, until the drawing is done.
One can almost hear her pictures. They are done in colored inks and waxy colored pencil, and their spirit is orchestral. While contemplating music, one can listen for the woodwinds, kettledrums or strings -- or by some subtle mind-shift receive the whole ensemble. Something of the sort happens with these drawings. One can separate the layers and read them individually, or -- by a shift of thought -- see all of them at once.
It is then that the whole becomes something other than its parts. Standing before "Ocean" (1985), one thinks of more than water: It's like looking simultaneously at the sea floor and the water, the waves and clouds and stars. "Beehive" (1986) suggests honeycombs and hives, stings and waggly dances, and warfare in the skies.
If Way could do with color as much as she already does with pattern, code and line -- if she could push her pictures from drawing into painting, from the scale of the page toward that of the wall -- her work would be even more impressive. These drawings would look fine on some blank white office wall, for one can see them at a glance as color field paintings or study them for hours. Her show will be on view through April 26.
Jennie Lea Knight at Bader
Washington's Jennie Lea Knight might well be two artists. Her abstract wooden sculptures obey some inner music; they seem to grow as naturally as otherworldly trees. Her sculptures feel like dreams. In contrast, her small oils seem entirely mundane. Her paintings are small portraits of animals she loves -- Liza the great horned owl, Theodore the rooster, Emily the goat.
The split that cleaves Knight's art is abundantly apparent in her little retrospective at Franz Bader, 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. "Flow," a 1970 floor piece of laminated pine, and "Ripple I," a fine and rhythmic wooden form carved in 1978, are among the more impressive local sculptures of their time. But "Claude II (Crow)," a 1976 oil, is imprecise; the bird sits on a log that seems made of mud. Finding these works in one exhibit is like discovering a Brancusi in the barnyard.
Nothing seems to link Knight's sculptures to her paintings except a deep affection (shared by almost all of us) for growing things, for nature. Knight loves the tones and textures of sycamore and maple, walnut, birch and oak, white pine and red clay. She seems to be as fond of cat fur and feathers. But the woods are here before us, while we see the animals only secondhand. Her sanded surfaces are lovely; her brushwork's oddly crude.
Only in her drawings -- and her drawings are exceptional -- do her two selves sing together. The few lines of that plump, proud "Rooster Running" (1973) could not be improved on. "Cat Sleeping" (1980) is comparably fine, and "Indian Runner Ducks" (1980) might make you laugh aloud. Knight has a fine, free sense of line; we see that in her drawings and in her sculptures, too. But she's not much of a painter. Her sculptures will be on view through May 11, her paintings through April 19.
Oils by James Hansen
The Jack Shainman Gallery, 2443 18th St. NW, is showing recent oils by James Hansen, who paints beside the sea in Provincetown, Mass. His pictures make one think of South Sea voyages recalled in fitful, shifting dreams.
The objects he depicts call to mind captain's chests -- Ahab's, say, or Cook's -- filled with haunted curios, bull-roarers from Australia, carvings by the Maori or strange snake-shaped forms of wood traded for glass beads on some surf-pounded beach. These souvenirs look solid. Sunlight seems to bathe them, and one can almost guess their weight.
But the oil paintings that contain them are peculiarly ambiguous. Hansen fills his pictures with oddly colored planes (some tiled with fish and faces) that retreat into the background or jump into the foreground, that will not stay in place. As one looks hard at these paintings, their solid forms start dancing, too; they form themselves in figures: Those sticks begin to look like arms, those globes become a pair of eyes.
These haunted, well-made paintings will remain on view through April 27.