William Bailey's still lifes, now on view at Fendrick's, could not be much stiller. There is a shutteredness about them, a calm, aloof discretion. Their milk jugs and their mixing bowls, their candlesticks and coffeepots share a stern New England reticence. Grouped yet individual, they pose calmly for their portraits like so many plain-faced elders in the village hall.
Some are plump, some thin and tall, all are stiffly clothed in silence. These objects don't exactly hide, yet as the poet Mark Strand rightly notes, there is "a hiddenness about" them. They stare back at us directly, yet will not let us in.
It is the painter's point of view that provides them their protection. They are not strewn before us, like dishes on the table; nor are they placed above us, like objects on the mantelpiece. Bailey's eyes, like Kilroy's, peek just over the edge. We view his props head-on. We know nothing of their contents. Is that milk jug filled with milk, that mixing bowl with kneaded dough? There is no way of telling. If these cups and jugs were people, we'd know nothing of their hearts.
Morandi's pots and vases are so dense with poetry that they sort of swoon. Ce'zanne's seem to wrestle. Bailey's still lifes are so quiet, and their spaces are so shallow, that they seem apart from life.
Bailey's skill is undeniable. I somehow wish he had less. A much admired teacher (he is Kingman Brewster professor of art at Yale University), Bailey, 58, has by now so practiced his technique and polished his performance that his paintings have begun to seem academic, slightly dead.
I like his still-life etchings better than his caseins and his oils. His painted surfaces (like so many of Georgia O'Keeffe's) are so smoothed, and so uninteresting, that if you approach them and stare closely, there is almost nothing there. His still-life etchings are more active. Their subjects are the same, but their countless tiny crosshatched lines give their surfaces some life.
Bailey spends much time in Umbria. The love he feels for Italy, its earth and warmth and history, undercuts the Protestant coldness of his art. It shows up in the earth tones, the ochers and the tans, of his flatly painted walls, and in the espresso pots he paints.
His honoring of Italy is seen most clearly in his portraits. Their subjects may be Yale girls. But he tries to make them look like ladies of the Renaissance. Bailey aims so high, at examples so exalted (at Leonardo's Giaconda, and at Ingres, too) that his sitters get a little lost. They're all prim and pure, and cleanly drawn. But they all look pretty much the same. Bailey, though enormously accomplished, is a repetitious artist. His show at Fendrick's, 3059 M St. NW, closes Dec. 5.
3 London Artists at Shainman
This is an especially good season here for modern English art. The graphic works of Henry Moore are on view at Robert Brown's; six good young English sculptors are showing at the Hirshhorn, as is Lucian Freud (his show should not be missed; it closes Nov. 29). Three additional London artists are now showing at Jack Shainman's, 2443 18th St. NW.
Their work, like so much else coming out of England, is partly modernist in spirit, yet somehow past-embracing. Painter Lisa Milroy scatters images on fields so that her compositions seem as equal-valued and as nonhierarchical as Andy Warhol's grids. But while Warhol's pictures hymned the now, Milroy prefers subjects soaked with antique memories. Her "Green Baubles" depicts 41 bright blown-glass globes, the sort one hangs on Christmas trees. (Bob Cratchit would approve.) Her "Fragments" is an ode on a Grecian urn, a broken one whose shards show panpipes, lyres, dolphins, chariots, scenes of war. Her brushwork is rather bold, but, because you get her thoughts at once, her work is rather dull.
John Murphy's is more evocative, more elegant. Constable used to sketch England's shifting clouds, tracing what he called a natural history of the skies. Murphy instead portrays constellations, ink-black heavens, bright-dot stars. His "Meaning Coagulated on the Flank of the Bear (Ursa Major)" depicts the Big Dipper. Hinting as it does at nostalgia, navigation, poetry and science, it is, though simply painted, easy to like.
Shirazeh Houshiary was born in Iran in 1955, and her sculpture, "Sacred Threshold," made of zinc and copper, seems a blend of dreams from her native land. Part winged and part couch-bound, it is spiky as a minaret and sexy as a houri. It is the strongest piece on view. "Working in London," selected by Milena Kalinovska, closes Dec. 12.
Frank Van Riper at Touchstone
The Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St. NW., is showing the color photographs of Washington's Frank Van Riper, who knows exactly what he's doing, who's got his techniques down. He has a number of them. Now and then he tries his hand at Southern Gothic roadside scenes, say, the rusting cars and disused gasoline pumps rotting in the weeds in front of Ralph Stremp's shop. Sometimes Van Riper essays straightforward color studies -- white cream in a black jug, or that jug by a red cup, or an even redder van parked against white clapboard. The pictures he calls "Moving Light" -- done with zooms, and time exposures and movements of the camera -- are the least familiar works on view.
He writes that his night-time image of the Uptown Theatre was made with a tripod-mounted camera and a 35-105-mm zoom lens with an overall exposure of "approximately 20 seconds, zoomed slowly during the final five." He notes that while shooting the Baltimore Aquarium's whale pool, he moved the camera slightly, causing "the image to blur, and, happily, to make it appear as if the light had jumped the confines of the pool." Van Riper is a craftsman, a clear-thinking professional. There is not much weird obsession or passion in his art. His show closes Dec. 6.