Anyone loves the intimate scale of "Winslow Homer Watercolors," now at the National Gallery, would do well to see "Sunlight and Shadow," a remarkable group of drawings, watercolors and pastels by a dozen important American painters now at Adams Davidson Gallery.
There are, alas, no watercolors by Homer, but there is a fine pencil drawing of a young woman leaning against a tree, enjoying the "Fresh Air" of the title. With an abandon rarely seen in his oils, Homer has here created the "weather" -- the stiff wind whipping around the woman's skirts -- by filling the sky with swift, vigorous strokes. The resulting sense of the artist's hand at work is what makes drawings of this sort so precious to collectors and connoisseurs.
"Fresh Air" represents the early stage of an idea that eventually turns up in a painting, as does George Bellows' "Riverfront -- Boy in the Sand," a study for one of the East River swimmers in his exuberant painting "42 Kids" at the Corcoran. There are also finished drawings, ranging from Thomas Wilmer Dewing's frothy pastel of a "Lady in Blue" to Charles Sheeler's crisp and meticulous "Wild Rose." Childe Hassam is represented by an intriguing watercolor, one of several he made in 1892 to document the construction of the World's Columbian Exposition.
But if dreams came true, it is "Night Life: The Accident," a 1908 pastel by Everett Shinn, that I'd carry home. This superb little scene focuses on a man lying in the road, obviously felled by a horse-drawn carriage, as a crowd looks on. Despite its small size, the drawing has all the excitement and detail of a full-scale Ashcan School painting -- it is jammed with people, and there is even a saloon in the background, hinting that alcohol may have caused the accident.
Winslow Homer fans, by the way, can ask to see his wonderful little oil painting "Mountain Climber Resting," now in the gallery and about to be offered for sale.
"Sunlight and Shadow," which also includes landscape drawings by William Trost Richards, John Henry Hill and others, will continue at 3233 P St. NW through May 24. Hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 6 p.m.
William Willis' Abstractions
Washington painter William Willis still seems to be groping for expressive forms he can call his own in the rather thin show of his recent work at Baumgartner Galleries. In seven paintings, he moves in three different directions: Small abstractions (good ones), built from the jagged, saw-tooth shapes identified with Neo-Expressionism; larger abstractions based on the male/female symbology of Eastern religions; and more familiar, nature-based images that teeter between abstraction and figuration, something Willis does especially well.
Where it will all lead is anybody's guess, apparently including his own. But one thing clearly unites this work: Whether based on natural forms or on tantric meditative devices (mostly the phallic "Lingam" astride an inverted triangular "Yoni"), these paintings suggest an overarching desire to evoke primal forces -- in this case, creative energy expressed in sexual terms. That's what these meditative symbols are about, once you learn to read them. But even "The Source," which looks at first like a huge, innocent flower, is charged with sexual overtones, its blossom not so much supported as penetrated and nurtured by its strange, river-like stem.
Trying to wrest a primal throb from natural forms is one thing. Trying to do it with unfamiliar, hard-edge symbols is another. It is a tribute to Willis' skills as a colorist and painter of intensely wrought surfaces that he actually comes close to achieving this in "Yoni Lingam with Mantra," by far the most successful of his new experiments.
This transitional show will continue at 2016 R St. NW through May 3. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sara Yerkes' Sculpture
Outer space, orbits, observatories and even the Challenger tragedy are the ambitious themes of Sara Yerkes' sculptural ensembles at Wallace Wentworth Gallery. But most remain well-designed ensembles rather than expressive sculpture, because they fail to become something more than various arrangements of the same parts -- tubular black steel frameworks, 1-by-6-inch redwood planks and suspended, mirrored balls.
There are evocations of outer space, no doubt about that, and even touches of whimsy as flying balls are caught in midair. But "Gyroscope," for example, is utter confusion, and "Requiem," an homage to Challenger, looks far too much like a paper airplane taking a nose dive.
"Natural Phenomenon" is a promising model for future work that suggests greater integration of forms, as a twister of steel moves through and around a pyramid. This, too, is rather literal, but less literal than most, leaving something to the viewer's imagination.
The show will continue through May 3 at 2006 R St. NW. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.