GRAY IS THE COLOR of cities, fog, sobering thoughts, alienation and indecision. But hang a selection of gray paintings together in one room, where they're not competing for attention with a lot of gaudy colors, and you'll find there's much to be said for going gray. Some say it's the color of dreams.
To prove the point, Middendorf Gallery is exhibiting a small number of American paintings, done between 1901 and 1981, in a gem of a show called "En Grisaille." Accompanying it is a handful of very worthy black-and-white prints by such advocates of art en grisaille as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
Traditionally, artists used gray tones almost exclusively in working sketches, but in modern times gray has come into its own, with something for everyone. Reginald Marsh's work in gray oil and ink is full of rubenesque figures, a takeoff on 16th-century drawings. But the setting is the beach at Coney Island, with large waves lapping at the bathers' feet. The scene could also be hell, with flames billowing at their feet. This is just the sort of delightful trick an artist can play by painting everything neutral.
In his straightforward, soft-toned "Fishing in Canada," Frederic Remington took advantage of grisaille to accentuate a dense fog in the distance, and the way water would seem to blend into it. And Robert Rauschenberg used it in his early silkscreened montage here, giving every element equal value (the work cheats; there's a yellow spot on it).
In Robert Longo's work, monochrome limits our clues to these psychologically charged drawings and lithographs of young, upwardly mobile types. Their violent motions contradict their perfect grooming and their dress for success. The gray indicates staleness, banality, the old gray flannel suit.
Here is a silkscreen of Andy Warhol's "Little Electric Chair," done in 1965 from an old photograph. Gray tones down the mood to make it even more depressing. And here is a "Marilyn" screenprint, where Warhol attempted the impossible: to make even her colorless. Some of the works here rely heavily on photographic sources, and the thought occurs that maybe we are more willing to accept work in grisaille after having been exposed to black-and-white photography.
Most of all, a monochromatic palette emphasizes form. Alfred Leslie exploits this with "Diana Kurt": She looks like a Gaston Lachaise woman, sculpted on canvas. With more accent on form, pattern must stand on its own. For Jasper Johns it was the alphabet -- utterly familiar forms, minimized until they're just pattern -- in gray of course.
"En Grisaille" and "Black and White Prints" will be at the Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Road NW, through December 9. Gallery hours are 11 to 6 Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 5, Saturday.
Anyone who thinks he is not familiar with Matthew Rolston's work has only to look at his copy of Michael Jackson's latest album. Rolston did the photos for "Bad." He also does a lot of photos for Interview magazine, and a selection of these may be seen at Govinda Gallery in "Magazine Work." This is the fluff that dreams are made on, L.A. style.
His best work is a series he did of the versatile Molly ("Pretty in Pink") Ringwald -- as a flapper, a '40s movie star with rolled hair, a flower child festooned with love beads and many mood rings, and just plain Molly, Natural Person of the '80s -- with towel, wet tousled hair, doe eyes. He did another series of model Kelly LeBrock as the Seven Deadly Sins. The lovely model as "Sloth," hanging over a two-olive martini, proves that anyone can look ugly. As "Greed," she is an Elvis/Wayne Newton clone.
There is something troubling about a series of pictures taken to show how unlike oneself one can look.
But this is a slice of Hollywood life, the bad and the beautiful (that's another series he did). Lisa Bonet, that nice girl from the Cosby show, she let him take her picture like that? And here is Jody Foster, looking something of the tormented intellectual. And Michael Jackson crowned king.
One could go on. But in fact, Rolston has a real touch. He adds something to everything he focuses on. Lately he is going in for surrealism. Like Andre Kertesz, he uses deforming mirrors. He splits images in two, three. He borrows liberally from Dali and Miro. He used all the surrealist iconography for a fashion article called "The Surreal Thing." The "Clock Face" worked especially well. (The persistence of acne . . . ?)
"Matthew Rolston: Magazine Work" will be at Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th Street NW, through November 28. Hours are 11 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday.