Beatrix Potter, meet Stephen King. Two southern artists at the Fendrick Gallery are doing work that is sweetly sinister, and both use animals to tell the tale. It is diverting summertime fare -- amusing, and not too demanding.
Frank Fleming has formed an elegant porcelain soup tureen in the shape of a large thumb being stung by a wasp. His sculpted penguins carry walking sticks topped with a man's head. His alligators carry human-face purses. He tweaks the viewer admirably.
Jackie Bishop has painted a series gently called "The Garden," but it's her version of Eden and the Fall. Some of the paintings are intimate shadow boxes. In one, a baby crawls in his Doctor Dentons on a path lined with a bunny, a raven and a hungry wolf -- life's little uncertainties. Her shadow boxes are as carefully painted and colorful as Russian icons.
In her larger-scale works, the colors are almost Haitian, though her studio is in New Orleans. Aqua armadillos fill a green backyard in "Family Portrait." Surrounding them is a profusion of fanciful birds, spotted and striped in nature's T-shirts. But here, too, something is amiss: Sharp-pointed garden tools lie in wait in the soft grass -- clippers and rakes and hoes, and fragments of picket fence, sharp side up.
In other paintings, dogs tear Big Bird limb from limb, and bunnies are caught in the act. Wolves dress in sheep's clothing; lazy ones just tie the whole sheep on their backs.
Some may remember Bishop's "Beach Butchery" series, shown at the Fendrick last summer. It was about disintegration, environmental decay and Armageddon. In successive paintings of a beach scene, patio chairs faded till the stuffing popped out, fish became skeletons, and Time's cover changed from President Reagan to a skull.
In a later series, called "What If ... ?" Bishop examined the moment before the loss of innocence. It's clear she's gone beyond that moment now. But what next?
Fleming's first animal experiments were with penguins because they were easy to build and looked good with human hands. At first he used color to make them realistic, but as he became more adept, he discarded the color, and his work now is pure white porcelain or bronze. Still, Fleming is the first to admit that his animals are "far from anatomically correct" -- "it's not my intention to reproduce nature," he says.
He has moved on to more complicated animals, such as dogs and rabbits. In one tableau, they confer with a goat-man. This is a sort of self-portrait -- the satyr being torn between the dog's loyalty and the rabbit's lust (the "out-at-night-to-sniff-the-pavements part of me," says Fleming).
The only good wasp is a dead wasp, and Fleming, who has been stung often enough in his garden outside Birmingham, Ala., has placed a wasp belly-up on a pedestal. He has bronzed a giant laboratory rat wearing doctors' plastic gloves. And here is a crocodile nibbling on finger food -- human fingers, that is.
Some of the strangeness in Fleming's work comes from the influences of California sculptor Robert Arneson and the late surrealist Rene' Magritte. But this ghoulish side, this dark humor, says Fleming, "is just a part of me. I had a speech impediment, didn't talk from age 6 to 18. I had to look at things funny, or I wouldn't have survived. I didn't know I was adopting this semisick view of life."
"Jackie Bishop: New Paintings" and "Frank Fleming: New Sculpture" will be at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, through July 10.
Mexican Artists at Kimberly A promising new gallery of all-Mexican art has opened up near the new hotels on M Street. In the Kimberly Gallery of Art's inaugural exhibit, "18 Contemporary Mexican Artists," the works show strong, traditional European influences. But the differences are in what the artists do with these imported ideas: Some of the works bear charges of poetry or fantasy that set them apart.
Jose Luis Cuevas' work does this best. He hints at Picasso, in his fine, emotional draftsmanship, in the balloonlike faces he draws. But the dreamlike dramas are all his own. They are self-portraits filled with people isolated from each other, strange, broad-faced players on an empty stage. They are like something from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel of solitude.
By contrast, Vincente Gandia does a very good Matisse in Nice. Somehow even the light is Mediterranean, in his "Interior With Window," a pleasant cacophony of patterns on rugs and pillows against white wicker furniture.
For real Mexican flavor, Gustavo Montoya paints a selection of those sweets sold on the street corners of downtown Acapulco, those forbidding pink saccharin-layered bricks, lime slices, sugar twists and glazed papaya. In his still life "Mexican Sweets," Montoya has arranged the candy tidily on a tilted table covered with a pink tablecloth -- an offering.
While religious imagery may be associated with primitive Mexican art, still the Catholic imprint comes out subconsciously in the more sophisticated. It is there in Feliciano Bejar's monstrancelike sculpture: a giant magnifying glass that tops an iron base resembling a car's axle. The glass is beveled crystal with overlapping circles; placed in front of a glass doorway in the gallery, like a prism the circles pull in images -- a BMW parked on the street, times 50.
And Juan Soriano's "Woman and Turtles" is clearly a religious experience. The woman is the Virgin or Mother Earth, with a turtle tugging at her hem and a chartreuse ray of light playing over her. But the artist is ambivalent toward his subject: She is dwarfed in the painting and the yellow-green sunlight is jarring to the viewer.
The gallery adds another layer to local Latin American galleries -- the Fondo del Sol, the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America, the OAS gallery are three that come to mind. And to show the Kimberly Gallery's seriousness, the labels are in Spanish -- only.
"18 Contemporary Mexican Artists" will be at Kimberly, 2445 M St. NW, through August.
Arlington's 10th Anniversary The paint smell in the hall of the old school. The classical station on the radio. The painter who looks up from her work in her studio to say hello. It's the Arlington Arts Center, now celebrating its 10th anniversary with "A Survey of Studio Artists, Past and Present."
More than 90 artists have had studios here; there are 31 now, painting, drawing and making prints, ceramics, photographs and jewelry. The works in this juried exhibition were all made here. In the case of artists who have left the center, they may not be anything like their current work.
There are some rather ordinary-looking landscapes, a few untitled abstractions best left unnamed, an amateurish portrait or two. But in all, the art is getting bigger and bolder and better.
Julie Schneider's "B Secret" is a fine drawing of a psychologically charged situation, a distraught woman confiding in another. (Are they mother and daughter, roommates or lovers?) Similarly involving is Carlo Biggio's "Contemplation": Perching on a stool is a nude woman realistic to the blisters on her toes, her thoughts apparently as sterile as the white plate and glass of water set before her.
Susan Kellogg Portney's collages of bizarre interiors -- fish floating through flowered wallpaper, a room of lizard skin -- are strangely inviting, as is Kate Curry's summer landscape, "Red Clover," loosely painted so that it only comes together from way across the room.
"A Survey of Studio Artists, Past and Present" will be at the Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., through July 26.