Jo Ellyn Rackleff is a painter of women -- misty and mystifying angels and domestics, forlorn brides and virginal girls. A sorcerer with paints, she cooks up a witches' brew of loosely limned portraits, borrowing colors from butterfly wings and probably throwing in eye of newt and tongue of dog. She's not afraid of color -- sweeping and swirling cobalt, crimson and vermilion -- but she never mixes in too much.
As can be seen in her show at the Foxley/Leach Gallery, she has a remarkable vision -- especially so since she has been painting for only four years. Rackleff was a National Public Radio producer in Washington and New York who took up painting as a cure for writer's block. She now lives and works in the village of Lloyd, Fla., near the Georgia border.
She has gone home, in effect, having grown up in the South. Her heritage is stunningly reflected here in the painting "Domestic Life," a commentary on an experience familiar to Rackleff and one she describes in her artist's statement. Black women "mothered me and I depended on them for my life," she writes. "A white child and a black woman can be bonded in love, but they can also be bonded by fear and rage." It is this very ambiguity that Rackleff captures.
There are tawny girls keeping clean in white dresses with blue satin sashes, and women lounging about in their underwear, letting it all hang out. In much the same way, Rackleff confidently allows the underpinnings of her paintings to show through -- allowing us to see the black lines of the grid she paints on a canvas before intuitively scumbling it with color.
When her ethereal style extends to men, it is to depict inaccessible ones in uniform: the doorman at Trump Tower whose epaulets fairly spin on his shoulders, and the "Priest Gardener" -- reminiscent of the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There" -- pink-faced and sniffing a potted plant. Rackleff cannot draw hands just yet: The priest's benediction hand is stuck in a corner like a disembodied hello. And yet her vision still enchants.
Her paintings will be at Foxley/Leach Gallery, 3214 O St. NW, through Jan. 15. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Kan at Robert Brown
Kit-Keung Kan's meditative landscapes combine forbidding crags and drifting mist. Hung together on the second floor of the Robert Brown gallery, they make the air around them seem thinner, and the silence thicker.
They are a modern man's powerful interpretation of traditional Chinese landscape painting. Kan, a local artist, was born in Canton. He left Hong Kong 20 years ago to come to the United States to study physics. Time has pared away his memories of mountains in China until all the details are gone. Remaining to be projected in his paintings are simplified forms: pyramidal peaks, a greensward, a grove of pines and those captured wisps of mist.
The occasional serpentine stream echoes the calligraphy found in ancient Chinese landscapes. While Kan has stylized the elements of those landscapes in his series of "Clouds in Mountain Space," he has kept the same elegance. Working in ink and watercolor on rice paper, he achieves fine textural effects. And one can envision the Chinese scholar going on retreat in those serenely cosmic hills.
Kit-Keung Kan's work will be at Robert Brown Contemporary Art, 1005 New Hampshire Ave. NW, through January. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (by appointment only, Dec. 29 through Jan. 2).
Klaidman at Fendrick
Kitty Klaidman is another landscape painter working in simplified forms in her current series "In the Marshes" at Fendrick Gallery. But while Kit-Keung Kan waxes cosmic, Klaidman focuses on the microscopic. She had been doing paintings that led the viewer on a path through the marshes of Sierra Bernia, Spain; now the guideposts have disappeared, and she takes us to the edge of the tall grasses, where we watch like hunters in a duck blind.
The views are of feathered, dried plants against blurred and speckled backgrounds of aqua and green. They are of different places, though location is clearly not important. Neither is whether her use of white indicates water, sand or snow.
But however abstract the paintings, different places do evoke different moods. The problem is there just isn't enough variation among the pretty and decorative paintings here to demonstrate that.
"Kitty Klaidman: New Paintings and Works on Paper" will be at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, through Jan. 9. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Two Shows at Alex
Black South African artists speak a different language from two New York painters in contrasting shows at Alex Gallery.
Serban Chelario's fluid, phallic lava flows are cold and precious, forms that accrete and adhere but overall aren't very satisfying. The other New York artist, Valeriu Boborelo, floats pink human figures in a blue sea or breaks them up into a mosaic effect. The thick impasto he chooses should be used to show emotion, but it's just paint. There's no feeling.
The artists from Soweto, on the other hand, have a mission. There is hope in Roy Ndinisa's woodcut, "Blessing." There is despair in Leonard Matsoso's painting of a family, the sad faces fractured like broken glass. Mario Sickle, who appears to be the best draftsman among the 14 artists on display here, defines the struggle with his drawing, "Through the Cowhide": agonized men reaching out with knotty joints, stretched tendons. And Lucas Seage's works on black paper are anguished scribblings and crosshatchings relieved by a patch of blue or red cloth revealed by angry cuts in the paper.
The work will be displayed through Jan. 4. Alex Gallery just opened in April, and owner Victor Gaetan plans to show an eclectic mix of work by local artists as well as some from Canada and Scandinavian countries, in addition to South Africa. At 2106 R St. NW, it's open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.