There's lots of provocation, as usual, in Ed McGowin's art, on view in the Jones Troyer Gallery. Though he is better known as a sculptor, McGowin always has been a skilled painter, and this show, consisting entirely of recent paintings, once again gives the lie to the artist's modest protestations that his paintings are but warm-ups for the real thing.
McGowin is an ace teller of edgy stories, and he makes sure that viewers fully participate in his main subject here, which is nothing less than contemporary isolation, distress, dissociation, anomie. In "Answering Machine," for instance, a woman holding a telephone receiver in her hand twists to give the viewer a painfully distraught glance -- a simple-seeming but profoundly disturbing image. One is pressed to question the nature of the message she's just received, and everything about the picture -- the soap opera simplicity of the woman's anguish, the vacuously tender images of love-making couples cast in relief on a dark, heavy frame -- perversely suggests that not only was the message painful but, much worse, that such brute pain is the inevitable result of a banal culture.
And so it goes, in image after image -- tough stuff delivered with deceptive ease and vulgar elegance. There's McGowin's patented anthropomorphic, vicious dog, straddling a telephone and framed by telephones; a "soldier" (so the title tells us) tossing in his sleep, his setting a lonely room, his dreams personified in the frame by ugly, simple signs of destruction and death; the woman again, a hapless icon in "Apple and Girl" and a poignantly adrift object in "Woman and Two Lovers"; and the dog again, undercutting the elegance and beauty of a wallpaper-like pattern painting. An epiphany of bleakness, of narcissism, of animal aggression and mindless decadence is attained in splendidly choreographed paintings of "Twenty-One Men Fighting" and "Thirty-One Men" (also fighting).
McGowin, a boxer in his youth, doesn't pull punches. The theatricality and narrator's empathy he showed 16 years ago in his brilliant "Name Change" piece, in which, legally and literally, he changed identities 12 times (once for every month) and created a radically different artifact for each identity, he shows again here in a condensed and disturbing way. The show continues at Jones Troyer, 1614 20th St. NW, through Dec. 3.
Rebecca Davenport at Osuna
Rebecca Davenport, a painter of painstakingly finished, luminous and psychologically probing realist canvases, shows in a more relaxed guise at the Osuna Galleries this time around. The new looseness is somewhat deceptive; the psychological examination she customarily gives her subjects is less strained here but just as penetrating.
The principal feature of the show is a series of paintings, each depicting a single subject on a thinly painted, grayish ground upon which the transfer grid remains visible. The grid is sheer artifice -- it allows the artist to make uncannily complete statements, focusing with great intensity upon the eyes, say, of a pig, or the transcendent feel of a cluster of pears, while maintaining an easy air of "just practice."
Also on view are drawings. Though Davenport is not a naturally gifted draftsman -- her line does not flow, it scratches -- she has turned this to her advantage. One senses her tremendous concentration in the accumulation of marks that produce a stunningly simple chair, or the edge of a sofa, or, especially, an expressive human face. The artist has repeatedly been one of her own best subjects, and this hasn't changed: The self-portraits here are riveting. At 406 Seventh St. NW through Nov. 20.
Lester Van Winkle at Henri
Lester Van Winkle, the Richmond figurative sculptor who shows regularly here at the Henri Gallery, handles wood with admirable precision in his search for just the right comic touch -- he's a formidable caricaturist who can playfully sum up a personality in the thrust of a pelvis or flick of the wrist. He does both here in the wacky, life-size "Womana," a dad's take on teenhood. Also in this cast of colorful characters is "West Palm," a painted lady wearing a hilarious Carmen Miranda hat; "Myth America," a skillfully disjointed figure with an amazing head of yellow hair (made of thin, curving dowels); and "Wall Flower," a gent who literally disappears into the patterned woodwork.
The downside is that these figures are types and, though funny, they're also a bit superficial despite Van Winkle's skills and his command of color, space and scale. The edge his art used to have, at once naive and surreal, is almost all gone. One only senses it here behind the, alas, silly masklike visage of "Homely Child -- the Daughter," or in the powerful still-life portion of "Side Man," where a green-painted hat sits on a stool like an apparition. Through Nov. 4 at 1500 21st St. NW.
William Willis at Baumgartner
William Willis' solo exhibition at the Baumgartner Galleries is limited to "Works on Paper," as the title states, but the technical, formal and expressive range actually is quite broad.
There are a few compelling, singular images that look as if they may have come to the artist all in a flash. "Birth of a Tree" is one of these -- a black, crosslike stump isolated against a noxious, though beautifully painted, sky. It is a strong little painting; the artist may have had Anselm Kiefer, the German neo-expressionist, on his mind when he made it.
Then there are sketchbook pages in which we see Willis mulling over the possibilities of certain idiosyncratic, emblematic forms such as the tridents (including a two-pronged version) and quarter moons in "Trident (Top Half)" and "Trident (Bottom Half)." These are not customary "first thoughts" -- the painter clearly has preselected a given vocabulary, a loose sort of late cubism, and with pen and ink and just a bit of watercolor has sure-handedly gone about suggesting to himself (and to us) how these forms might look and feel when enlarged. We are able to gauge something of how this process might work in "Shell Mural," a slightly larger, slightly more finished painting in the same vein.
And, finally, there are large paintings with the carry of the completed thought. "Untitled (Study After 'The Source')" is of this type. It centers upon a stylized, spiraling plant form that gains irresistible force by being played against two strong rectilinear enclosures and richly inflected (though loosely painted) areas of grays and whites. It is quite a grand painting, at once elegant and rough.
Willis has been painting in the Washington area for more than a decade. This show demonstrates that he continues to grow in unpredictable ways. It ends today at 2016 R St. NW.