Though abstraction (like representation) has been a continuing force in 20th-century American painting, shifts in fashion have often all but obscured its presence.
Lest that happen here, a thought-provoking new show at Baumgartner Galleries currently makes the case that abstract painting not only survives but thrives in this home of the Washington Color School. As its title implies, "Transcendence: Washington, D.C." also points to a shared concern -- at least among artists here -- with cosmic, spiritual forces that often allude, more or less explicitly, to Far Eastern philosophies. An intriguing dimension is added by the inclusion of works by three late Washington Color painters -- Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and Leon Berkowitz -- suggesting a thread of spiritual continuity with the six contemporaries represented.
Whatever their differences -- and there are many -- it is the similarities among these works that resonate, largely by way of a sensitive and intelligent installation that includes only 10 paintings.
In the front gallery, for instance, paintings by Andrea Way, W.C. Richardson and Simon Gouverneur all employ abstract imagery that hints at infinite celestial forces, at star maps, mind maps and integrated circuits, and -- in the end -- at artists seeking order in the universe. In the back room, the yin-yang, female-male polarity asserts itself in "The House," an early minimal painting in black and white by William Willis. Sacred geometries surface in the tall, golden pyramid and floating red orb of Carolyn Orner's untitled work, and in two small, luscious, mantralike cruciform paintings by Howard Mehring, one titled "Radiant" (1961), bristling with splashes of scintillating, effervescent color.
Once you glimpse the notion of spiritual auras and color vibrations, you sense them everywhere -- in the sliding, shifting layers of colored circles in Downing's beautiful and romantic canvas; in the throbbing, disembodied hues of Berkowitz's painting, made shortly before his death. Hung as it is at the end of a long vista, Berkowitz's painting seems to generate an encompassing aura.
It is, in fact, the overall context here -- the flow of energy and ideas that it provokes -- that is the real star of this show. And somehow within its orbit, Robin Rose's large, recent encaustic "Same as the Other" suddenly comes to life as a taut, rich meditation on sea under silvery sky. After a difficult transition, Rose seems to have found his voice once again.
This uplifting show, a landmark of sorts, will continue through Jan. 30 at Baumgartner, 2016 R St. NW.
Thomas Mullany at Walker, Ursitti
Since power, greed and money have been dominating the headlines for more than a year, it is no surprise to find a Washington artist grappling with contemporary American society, its problems, faults and foibles. The big surprise is that so few others are doing so. Thomas Mullany, now showing at Walker, Ursitti and McGinniss, is one of the best.
Better known as a prodigious wood sculptor, whose faceless, guileless organization men in business suits often had a fake-folk look, Mullany here shows a vastly expanded range that includes painting as well as sculpture. In both media, he continues to satirize gently and provocatively, always in ways that require at least a double take. Recently, it seems more appropriate to say that he disguises his real meaning by using recognizable images from the history of art to throw you off the track.
His 12-foot-tall carved wooden "Angel," for example, looks for all the world like the symbolic French figure of Liberty storming the barricades -- until we realize that she's carrying an Uzi machine gun in lieu of a flag. The United States in Nicaragua? Aggression in the name of liberty? He leaves us guessing, but amazed at his energy and virtuosity.
There are other angels in this show, some of them carrying three-button bureaucrats aloft into the firmament, all part of a large, elaborately framed, panoramic landscape painting titled "Taking Leave of Office," an apotheosis of the departing Reagan administration. From a distance, it looks like a 19th-century American "Westward Ho!" tinted with the tenderly garish colors of a Western sunset, though Mullany says he took the shape of the work from a ceiling painting by Tiepolo. In any case, subtlety, as well as complexity, saves this and most of the other works from becoming mere satire: Only the figure of a seated Reagan is recognizable here, and one can but guess at the identity of the others, including the woman in the fur coat who apparently has had too much to drink.
Mullany has made a full-size preparatory drawing for this painting that is almost more powerful than the painting, partly because the old-master guise lasts a bit longer in the looking. The least interesting works are the one-liners, though even they involve a double take.
"The Mighty Summit," for example, looks at first like two giant, levitating angel wings; then like the tops of two atomic clouds. Very close scrutiny reveals two tiny figures at the top, shaking hands -- turning the work, disappointingly, into a cartoon. Without the title, however, his meaning would be lost. Ah, well, at age 26 he's allowed a clinker or two.
There's a good deal more to this show, and anyone seriously interested in exceptional young talent should see it. It will continue through next week at 457 M St. NW. Gallery hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, noon to 6, and also by appointment.