The great importance of scale to William Christenberry's art, of the relationships between actual and implied sizes of the many different kinds of objects he creates, is effectively revealed in his solo exhibition at the Middendorf Gallery.
The show occupies three floors and encompasses most of his media: Brownie and large-format color photographs, big color Polaroids, collaged wall constructions large and small, drawings and sculptures in his "Southern Monument" series. All are related in subject, of course -- it has long been Christenberry's intention to recreate a sense at once real and magical of the world of the rural South -- and this relatedness makes the differences in scale all the more explicit and special.
Miniaturization in myriad forms has been a crucial tactic in Christenberry's art; it was incipient in the Brownie photographs he began taking (initially as notations for paintings) in the late 1950s. But his handling of scale is more conscious and many-sided in the wall constructions. These come in two basic sizes -- quite small and quite large. The little ones are dependent for their success upon the degree to which they combine esthetic self-sufficiency with evocations of larger worlds and objects -- of real walls that have been subjected over time to natural and man-made alteration, and truly wall-sized paintings.
Because of Christenberry's gifts as a colorist, collagist and painter, these provide magic moments but the devices he uses to establish scale do not always convince. The letter "A" in "Circular Wall," for instance, is perfect -- without losing its real-world identity as a fragment of an automobile license plate, it also astonishingly suggests billboard scale. But by contrast the hand-painted notation "No Trespassing," in "Architect's Wall," simply calls attention to its actual size and, in consequence, to the self-conscious artifice of the whole.
No such problems attach to "Inverted Three Sixes Wall," a construction measuring about 4 1/2 feet high by 10 feet long. Here the viewing experience is reversed -- one starts with an impression of the full, human scale of the object and works gradually inward to the many separate elements (variously sized snippets of metal cans, license plates, signs and so on) from which the whole has been pieced together. There are passages of riveting beauty here but they don't exist in isolation; it is the continuous, fully resolved tension between the whole and its parts that accounts for this work's pervasive harmony.
In the "Southern Monuments" Christenberry demonstrates his most multifaceted command of scale and also, not incidentally, of the tensions between closed and open forms, Apollonian and Dionysian urges, reality and imagination, regionalism and universality, that are central to the creative enterprise as he defines it.
A poignancy of scale is established by the use of "found" parts (often subtly altered) to construct these objects. Though one must acknowledge the metal signs, rubber balls and gourds here as real, one cannot confidently accept them for their actual size; they seem parts of an imaginary world and, as in many dreams, larger than life. The inclusion of a few obvious "studio" elements such as tiny pyramids or cones or, especially, little rope ladders inevitably heightens this fiction and adds, as well, a ritualistic element to the meaning.
One's identification of these pieces as, in essence, miniature buildings is critical, but they are both like and unlike buildings in the real world. "Monument VI," for example, could be the apotheosis of a roadside stand, "Monument XX" of a grain storage bin, "XXVI" of a barn. Still, their functions are wholly esthetic and symbolic. The powerful forms suggest a culture locked in epic struggle to harness sexual and other natural forces, and producing in the process artifacts -- monuments -- of a beauty at once matter-of-fact, and rare, and raw.
The large color Polaroid photographs of these artifacts, eerily lit close-ups made at oblique angles, amplify the theme of larger-than-lifeness. They also suggest an aura of surrealistic violence -- an effective though curiously limiting interpretation. Christenberry's "straight," large-format photographs, particularly those of walls of buildings, are decisively and simply composed. Seen tonally with a painter's eye, they are like this artist's Rothkos. His little drawings of subjects long familiar from the Brownie photographs are the final pleasing notes in this carefully orchestrated game of scale.
The exhibition continues through Jan. 16 at 2009 Columbia Road NW. The artist's father, William Christenberry Sr., is exhibiting his appealing, whittled wooden "tools" at the Henri Gallery, 1500 21st St. NW, through Jan. 6.
Howard Mehring at Osuna
What a pleasure it is to see again a balanced selection of paintings by Howard Mehring, the Washington artist who died nearly a decade ago at age 47. The exhibition, chosen from the estate by Ramon Osuna and on view at the Osuna Gallery, reminds one of Mehring's individual brilliance as a painter and also of the need now to take another look at the Washington Color School. The work of Mehring and his colleagues Paul Reed, the late Thomas Downing and the late Gene Davis, still remains unfairly overshadowed by that of the justly (and amply) celebrated Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.
Mehring worked systematically. This exhibition contains representative paintings from 1958 to 1967 -- from the wonderfully expansive younger years, when he was combining Pollock's whiplash line with lyrical color, to his still-convincing allover stipple paintings, to his cut-and-pieced geometrical stipple canvases, to his flatter and still-challenging inverted "T" paintings and the "Z" formats that remain zingy in form and curiously self-canceling in color relationships. There's not a bad work in the show, but in a single viewing I was especially impressed -- transported, really -- by "Single Double" (1963), an old favorite of the geometrical stipple type whose colors (strawberry red, luminous light green and deep blue-green) sing while remaining under rigorous intellectual control.
Through January at 406 Seventh St. NW.
Afro-Latino Art at Fondo
"Homage to the Afro-Latino Tradition" is an ambitious but poorly focused exhibition "dedicated to the heritage and roots of the Latino experience," on view at Fondo del Sol. The main problem, other than the tremendous divergency in style and quality of works (some seemingly unrelated to the theme), is that the two principal installations are more like backdrops for, or residues of, festive rituals than cohesive works of art.
"The Day of the Dead" installation is a splendid archeological assortment of objects collected by American Sal Scalora -- it's a little museum of folk art associated with this Mexican celebration. Juan Boza's altar to the "Seven Orisha Powers" suggests the vital continuation of Yoruba beliefs in Afro-Cuban culture, but as art it's lifeless -- the spirits seem to have departed the room. The tremendous mix of the rest of the show makes it difficult to see or interpret as a whole, but paintings by Freddy Rodriguez (of the Dominican Republic, now in New York) and wall structures by Osvaldo Mesa (of Cuba, now in Baltimore) are particularly strong.
Through December at 2112 R ST. NW.