Sylvia Snowden sticks brushes into Smithfield lard buckets of acrylic paint, loads them up and slathers color onto huge pieces of paper. Gobs it, oozes it, heaves it, encrusts it, lavishes it on diptychs and butters 10-foot pictures of prancing, waving figures with it, an ocean of paint, great creamy waves of color your eye surfs down, glorious goo.
That said, it is a pleasure to report that what's equally intriguing about these pictures at Brody's Gallery, 1706 21st St. NW, through Nov. 28, is the subjects -- the human figures that haunt these storms of acrylic pigment like Flying Dutchmen.
Check out a painting called "Monica Johnson." She reclines, perhaps on a couch or bed. Her calf is orange, her huge hand has green and orange fingers, and her face is a prickly impastoed multicolored tiderip. Monica seems to be holding forth, attempting to explain something with a plaintive insistence that marks a lot of the figures in this show. Are her hands closing in on an idea, shaping a thought and presenting it to a listener? Something in the featureless face communicates a sorrowful intelligence, and one suspects the attempt at explanation is doomed.
Snowden puts all this paint on big strips of paper backed by strips of linen. The combination of paint and paper can be a liberating one for artists, maybe because paper is so much cheaper than canvas and there's less worry about wasting materials. Whatever the reason, Snowden isn't worrying.
The extravagance of these paintings would not be true extravagance if they didn't have flaws. They do. Figure and ground don't always work together, and the ground can be notable only for the sheer poundage of paint. The alliance between figuration and abstraction is an uneasy one as well -- when you see the two together, you tend to wonder if the abstraction isn't hiding bad draftsmanship, or the draftsmanship isn't hiding bad abstraction. As it happens, nothing is being hidden here. Snowden does both things well, even if they aren't always reconciled. Her skills as an abstractionist are particularly evident in "Constance Guitian." As for her draftsmanship, she distorts anatomy -- hips are cocked with expressionist grotesqueness, and hands flop around big as first-basemen's mitts -- and then she'll throw the sure, real, unhesitant faces of a painting like "Cheryl" at you, and the electric mystery of these pictures gets deeper still. Fred Riskin at Tartt
There are two traditions of spies in the 20th century. One tradition makes them romantic adventurers, as in James Bond. The other sees them not so much as secret agents as metaphysical operators looking for reality. This is the tradition begun by Eric Ambler and perfected in the early John le Carre' (and betrayed by the gassiness of the later le Carre'). Who's who? What's what? Is anybody on anybody's side? Are there any sides?
The dingy scholastic fervor of the latter mythology is the subject of Fred Riskin's "Sub Rosa, a Psychic Journey" at the Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, through Nov. 28. Riskin last appeared at Tartt in a show about the assassination of John Kennedy -- a series of photographs with first-person captions written in the voice of an anonymous assassin. Here, the first-person in the captions is a psychic hired by the CIA to get information on the Soviet Union via long-distance gathering of visual imagery. Each picture advances a plot that gets played out to Riskin's sound track -- eerie grindings of a synthesizer punctuated by explosions and airplane shrieks, and the sort of fatigued and final choir noise that T.S. Eliot might have composed in his later years had he been a musician.
The pictures are photographs of airplanes, maps, a satellite, a caravan of camels, a submarine, craters, the late CIA master spook James Angleton, the British traitor Kim Philby and so on in a grainy, gritty collection, much of which seems to have been drawn from newspapers. Inside the frames with these photographs are captions in insets and in smaller photographs of crumpled pieces of paper. The words say things like "The hearts of deep spies, like deep space, hold few places of rest," or "These images do not exist. They are shadows from a body which is missing."
It's all quite silly, but it will be gratifying, even a little thrilling, for those who take spying very seriously indeed. Donald Davidson at 9th Street
Bruce Pascal was a process server, one of those guys who hits you with the court documents when you owe money, that kind of thing. But he got tired of it and opened the 9th Street Gallery three months ago at 1553 Ninth St. NW, deep in the heart of the up-and-coming Shaw neighborhood.
"I went to this testimonial dinner where they were giving this award to a guy who'd given a lot of money to charity," he said recently. "He owed a lot of money, too, though, and I was looking for him. He heard I was there and he didn't even show up to collect his own award. I felt bad about that. I decided to get out of that business."
He picked Shaw, he says, because "I figured out I could buy a whole building here for what I'd have to pay in rent someplace else."
He's got an interesting show up through Nov. 28: paintings and pastels by Donald Davidson.
You don't have to look at Davidson's eight-minute video on Pascal's shopworn Zenith, but it helps. It shows Davidson pounding a conga drum and watching dancers move through a series of postures. He tells them to freeze. He sketches them. He uses these sketches as the basis of the work Pascal is showing -- strong, gloomy, manic, sort-of-allegorical pictures of moving figures demarcated by heavy black outlines.
In "Repair of the Muse," says Pascal, the uniformed figure in the little inset at top right is Moammar Gadhafi, about to destroy a stripe painting by the late Gene Davis. In front of them are shark fins. The main subject is a nude who looks like she's being force-fed something while a scroll unrolls and a greenish mask looks on, over another inset of a palette and brushes.
There's an atmosphere of moral imperative to this stuff, as if you should interpret all the symbology, or confront its ambiguity, for your own good. This might be annoying if Davidson didn't paint with such assurance and such controlled expressionist vigor. Mel Watkin at Addison/Ripley
Mel Watkin's big graphites on paper are like those pictures that spooked you in childhood, usually when you saw them in books of fairy tales, pictures with an edgy, nocturnal quality, not dreamlike because they are fantastic and unreal, but dreamlike because they are fantastic and real -- one of the qualities of dreams being, of course, that they never seem dreamlike while we're having them.
The subjects are nude, muscular women in dreamscapes with black backgrounds. The women are highly stylized. They have an antique, unarticulated flatness in an early-Greekish way. Around them, hair flows, water pours and waves curl. The backgrounds -- blackness formed of crosshatchings -- lend an obsessive tone. Watkin calls these works her "Responsibility Series," I have no idea why, but the title adds pleasantly to the air of mystery.
No doubt large amounts of time could be spent deciphering the symbology of these pictures, and linking them to surrealism, Freudian psychology, the Masons, the curse of King Tut or whatever. This would be fun, but it isn't necessary. Like dreams (but unlike surrealism et al.), these works have a self-defined quality. Hence that paradoxical sensation of reality. Like fairy tales, they're worlds in themselves, odd and whole at the same time. The show at Addison/Ripley Gallery, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW, closes at 5 today.