Photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue's people are like Chagall's: They spend more time in the air than on the ground. In Lartigue's world, dogs fly, men race fast motorcars, women glide down stairs without touching a step. It's a rich, joyous fantasy of French family life in the first decades of the century and it was delightfully described by the young Jacques-Henri, who took many of his best photographs between the ages of 7 and 15.
After this prodigious and precocious burst of genius, Lartigue labored for many years as a painter in Paris, never again coming as close to his muse, although many of his later photographs possess the marvelous spontaneity that makes his childhood work so memorable.
Photographs taken between 1903 and 1930 are on display for the next several weeks at the Tartt Gallery, giving ample evidence that Lartigue, who died last year at the age of 90, was a true poet of movement and action, and perhaps the finest photographer of family life -- or was his the finest family ever photographed? With Lartigue it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. In any event, no one's ever photographed fun better.
In another show on the second floor gallery at Tartt, amid the art of New York anthropologist-turned-artist Fred Riskin, the mood is radically different. We move from the spontaneous pleasure that people take in one another's company to a somber theatrical installation of photographs, words and music offering a mordant and sometimes morbid meditation on the nature of murder and assassination.
The narrative of "The Assassin and the Holy Ghost" swirls about one of the central events of our time: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The narrator is the assassin -- not Lee Harvey Oswald, but a character out of Riskin's imagination, a protagonist best described as the archetypal hit man. Years after the event, and in retirement, he ponders the metaphysical implications of this and other misdeeds that define his life and, by extension, our lives.
As theater, with its dirgelike score -- written by Riskin -- and text that blends a self-conscious bravado with a cool disdain -- the result is melodrama. As literature, it amounts to a not very convincing reworking of the "alienated outsider" theme brought to life more persuasively by such writers as Dostoevsky and Camus. And as photography, Riskin's ambitious effort seems modishly postmodern with its "appropriation" of popular imagery: Riskin has taken photographs in the public domain -- stills from the Zapruder film, post cards from California's Sea World and iconic images of Che Guevara on his death pallet -- and rephotographed them, adding grain and changing their scale.
But the point should be made that "Assassination" is not just theater, literature or photography; it is a synthesis of all three. As such it is laudably ambitious and should be admired for its effort to understand a central enigma of our history. Much contemporary photography underreaches; Riskin overreaches, and his work should be seen if for no other reason than to respect the risks he takes.
If there's a central flaw in the piece, it's a dilemma Riskin shares with many a modern artist who's tackled contemporary history: In our peculiar times the imagination is no match for reality.
Riskin and Lartigue's exhibits close on March 13 and the Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Narrative at Addison/Ripley Addison/Ripley's lively new group show is further evidence that the narrative is much on the mind of artists these days.
The show might with equal justice be called "metaphorical figures," as it is basically an eclectic survey of how artists use the human figure as a metaphor or catalyst for meaning. Sometimes that meaning is metaphysical and allegorical, as in Mel Watkin's marvelously hypnotic dream-drawings or Frederick Childs' provocatively enigmatic allegory of man confronting classical time. Other works are autobiographical, as in Jonathan Shahn's realist sculpture of his father reading a newspaper -- a work last seen at the National Museum of American Art. And sometimes the narrative is political: There's the stringently sexual politics of Helmut Newton's man-woman confrontations (why do a few Helmut Newtons look better than a lot of Helmut Newtons?) or the sorrowful drama of India and Pakistan rendered as a metaphorical Cain and Abel by Leslie Kuter in her choreographic hooked rug "The Brothers."
And some of the works are narratives about art itself. In that vein, I enjoyed the colors and forms in Gayil Nalls' still life and Mary McCleary's obsessively worked mosaic -- called "Adam and Eve." In the latter, the primal couple consists of hundreds of strips of brightly colored wood, the net result of which is reminiscent of those pieces crafted out of a lifetime supply of toothpicks by retired men in their garages.
"Narrative Figures" will be on view until March 7 at Addison/Ripley Gallery, 9 Hillyer Ct., which is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.