Despite the corruptions of creeping Manhattanization, Dupont Circle art galleries have retained the local flavor of their enthusiasm and ambition and the air of slightly fumbling gentility they've had since the scene there consisted mostly of the Henri and Jefferson Place galleries 20 years ago.
Other landmarks have left the Circle -- the Benbow bar became a bagel boutique and Charlie the counter man is long gone from Schwartz's drugstore, along with the lunch counter. In the '70s it looked as if the galleries would all flee to Seventh Street, where owners could rent commercial space and get that airy polish to things that Washington envies so in the New York gallery scene. But they stayed and thrived, mostly in Victorian town houses with dim but interesting light -- very gemu tlich.
Today, 18 of them join in the third annual New Talent Exhibition, an open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Start at any of them and pick up a map that shows how to find the rest. It's a chance to amble around the Circle and see some good, fresh, sensuous art, full of color, contrast and quirky ideas.
And fun. Some of the best art on the tour is the most fun to look at -- as in Y. David Chung's huge charcoal drawings at Gallery K (2010 R St. NW). Chung is a 28-year-old South Korean who has studied at the University of Virginia and the Corcoran School. He has a fine eye for the demons of American excess, which he portrays here in six-foot-tall renderings of public places -- street scenes, a store, a bar, a zoo. The contrasts are high, perspective lines that slash and bend with psychotic intensity, and he evokes daily life as a mad private joke. There are echoes of Francis Bacon and of illustrator Ralph Steadman, who used to work with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Upstairs are paintings by Richmond's Frank Cole, who puts paint, drawing and chunks of slate together to get a somber, cloudy-day richness.
At the Tartt Gallery (2017 Q St.) the portrait photographs by Leon Borensztein depend on a kind of prank. Borenzstein is a commercial portrait photographer, but after he takes the color pictures the subjects are paying for, he backs up and shoots them again in black and white. They're still posing in their best clothes, but now we see the props and artifice of the studio.
Borenzstein avoids nastiness to come up with acute and poignant portraits. One shows a Marine sergeant with his family. He's wearing dress blues except for the shower shoes he didn't realize would show in the black-and-white picture. Another shows an Indian in battered tribal regalia, posing with rifle as if prowling across the plains while a small boy watches from beyond the edge of the backdrop.
There's a lot of esthetic self-consciousness in this tour.
At Touchstone Gallery (2130 P St.), Glenn Moreton offers photo-realist cityscapes, some with lines drawn lightly across building fac ades. One wishes that he'd either paint the lines bolder or get rid of them. If he's going to make a statement about the nature of art, perspective, photo-realism or whatever, he might as well clear his throat and speak up. Also at Touchstone, Tom Scott swabs and spatters paint on photographs of area museums -- the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery among them.
At Brody's Gallery (1706 21st St.) photographer Richard Felix is showing western landscapes marked with little white silhouettes of horses, Indians, kachina dolls and so on. Most of these marriages of the conceptual and the pictorial don't succeed, but there are some handsome screens featuring the same subjects. As screens, they have a plainly decorative function that takes the edge off the esthetic busyness that troubles the wall pictures -- "decorative" may be a dread word in the art world, but it solves a lot of problems.
The AFR Fine Art Gallery (2030 R St.) joined the tour too late to be included on the list, but it's worth an extra stop to see David Lowe's images of Greek and Roman ruins. He works from photographs, using pastels, charcoal or watercolor -- often brilliant orange or yellow -- in a loose but deliberate style, and he makes startling pictures that show there's plenty of life left in one of art's oldest subjects. In one, called "Paestum" after the temple in Italy, he draws lines across the picture like Moreton. Here it works, maybe because the palimpsest of art history and esthetics is so thick that another layer of self-consciousness fits right in.
Self-consciousness takes another road at Jones Troyer (1614 20th St.). Here, Susan Eder makes gimmick photographs so daffy that the daffiness and gimmickry start to seem like the point. For instance: pictures made of 24 little prints of face-shaped clouds (you'll keep looking till you see all the faces), or 25 prints of faces in pieces of popcorn. There's a series of "dissections" -- each one shows nine prints of hands using a scalpel and tweezers to dissect a thistle, or a Skeletor action toy, or a BB pistol. There's a photograph of the 259 four-leaf clovers Eder found last year -- and one three-leaf clover, location unspecified -- hunting for it is just the thing to keep guests occupied while you're on the phone. To further the daffiness, Eder gets her prints made at the drugstore, which means that the color shifts from image to image.
At Wallace Wentworth (2006 R St.), the steel sculptures by Cynthia Barber are geometric and their colors are jolly -- mobiles and stabiles in shiny red, black, orange and yellow with triangles flying out of circles in a comfortably modern style. Very pleasant. At Marsha Mateyka Gallery (2012 R St.) the hilarity subsides with Bilge' Friedlaender's abstract pastels and sprayed pulp paper pieces. These have a mysterious, floating quality, accentuated by the marvelous spires and screens and cornices of the dark and elaborate Victorian woodwork in this old town house -- original woodwork from 1886. Mateyka is worth visiting for this alone. At Anton Gallery (2108 R St.) a six-person show is called "Brutal Elegance," and if you like raw and tense art that grabs you by the lapels, it's here. Keep in mind, though, that the original of this kind of eclectic energy is Henri Gallery (1500 21st St.).
"It's eclectic," Henri will say, with one of her patented tough-old-bird pauses, "but I love it this way." She and her gallery are Dupont Circle institutions. Her new-talent offering is Gerald Mitchell's abstractions done with acrylics and collage.
Don't forget to head into the alley that divides the Phillips Collection. In the carriage house back there are Foundry Gallery, with a juried photography show, and Addison/Ripley Gallery, showing suggestions of garden scapes by Lynn Sures on handmade paper, and the unstretched tarps of Chuck Johnson,hung by eyelets -- with a lot of greens and blues and patchwork arrangement, they have a submarine, Paul Klee quality. (The carriage house is at 9 Hillyer Ct.)
And there's more, believe it or not: the mysterious women in the paintings of Doris Laughton and Susanne Arnold at Gallery 10 (1519 Connecticut Ave.) and the muscular, gritty photographs of Claudio Vasquez at Kathleen Ewing Gallery (1609 Connecticut Ave.). Vasquez has the rare ability to alter his prints without making them look either self-conscious or experimental. And a group show at Studio Gallery (2108 R St.), and political linocuts at Washington Printmakers (2106 R St.) and some strong sculpture at Baumgartner Galleries (2016 R St.) and masks and ritual aprons at Affrica (2010 1/2 R St.).