MORE THAN a quarter century of Lester Johnson's art is encompassed in the exhibition of a dozen mixed-media drawings and watercolor paintings at the Jack Shainman Gallery.
It is an exciting show that manages, despite its compactness and the lack of Johnson's better-known oil paintings, to suggest the sources and the staying power of his unusual vision.
Johnson, born in the Midwest in 1919, matured as an artist in New York in the '50s during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Besides being gifted as a young painter, he must have been a courageous, stubborn kind of guy, for he was voted into the Eighth Street "Club," the now-famous intellectual storm center of abstract painting, despite his steadfast insistence upon figuration in his own art.
As one can see clearly in this show, Johnson was and to an extent remains a man of those times. There's a sequence of three drawings -- "Portrait" (1961), "Figure with Fuchsia" (1963) and "Dark Head" (1964) -- that forcefully demonstrates his indelible union of Abstract Expressionism with an intensely felt and very personal sort of figuration.
The wholeness of his embrace of "action painting" (as it was descriptively labeled) can be felt and seen in the slashing rapidity of strokes of the brush or stick of pastel.
But the head-and-shoulder figures in these drawings are not simply added elements; rather, they are integral parts of the conception and the artistic expression. Though not altogether lacking in individuation, these heads are fundamentally iconic; frontally posed, they are squeezed against the surface as if trapped there. In their gritty solitariness they remind one of Giacometti's postwar sculptures.
"The human and the monumental are contradictory, but I wanted to put them together," Johnson has said. This is the course his painting took, progressing from such frontal, iconic figures to crowds of figures moving across surfaces in a mysterious trance. "Five Figures" (1972) is a virtuoso drawing that reflects this change. The elegance of its execution (in charcoal and pastels) contrasts with the jangling, loose-boned (not to say anatomically impossible) gestures these figures make.
This drawing can be compared to a painting of the same period, "Street Scene, Men," which, though not in the show, can be seen in this gallery's rear office. One of the remarkable aspects of both works is Johnson's ability to portray such lively, fully rounded figures in such a shallow space -- they're jammed together and yet each retains his own psychological and physical presence while dancing to Johnson's peculiar tune.
The most recent pieces in the show are two "Summer Watercolors" from 1986. Pastoral stillness, sensuousness and color here replace the frenetically urban rhythm of "Five Figures," although Johnson's bucolic paradise is not lacking in mystery. Each of the three deep-eyed women in "No. 7," for instance, is characterized by her own elusive version of the enigmatic smile of ancient Greek statues. They make an appealing coda to an intensely satisfying, if condensed, presentation.
In a series of large works she calls "Rescue Paintings" at Brody's Gallery, Gina Gilmour proves adept at inventing strong, dramatic compositions to embody her profoundly sentimental ideas of friendship, affection, courage, succor and human interconnection. The situations she creates are desperate or apocalyptic, while the mood of the works is dreamlike and ethereal.
Thus, in "The Day the World Split Open," two of her typically attenuated, nude, androgynous figures clasp each other across a stupendous cleft in a barren land, through which whooshes the endlessly uncomforting night. In "Holding," two similar figures, one perhaps dead and one very much alive but on the fearful edge, manage to stay afloat in a soundless sea, clutching with boneless limbs life preservers and each other. In "The Fountain," the most complex of the images, a floating figure in a life jacket grasps a female figure from whose head appears to spout a fountain, the gift of life.
The ambiance is that of fin-de-sie`cle symbolism, absent its decadence. The paintings are touching but not deeply moving, sad but not tragic. There is no conflict to speak of; instead, there is wholesome, passive togetherness in the face of a mindless, uncontrollable void.
Also at Brody's are Robert Rauschenberg's series of multiples, "Tibetan Locks and Keys," published in 1986 by Gemini G.E.L. Comprising color photographic images of contemporary Tibet printed upon porcelainized metal, these are elegant and alluring objects, the more so when given three-dimensional form. But they're glossy, too, in more ways than one; there's no feeling of reality profoundly experienced in their slick juxtapositions.
LESTER JOHNSON --
"Works on Paper, 1961-1986." At the Jack Shainman Gallery, 2443 18th Street NW, through January 30. Tuesday through Saturday.
GINA GILMOUR --
"Rescue Paintings," and
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG --
"Tibetan Locks and Keys," both at Brody's Gallery, 1706 21st Street NW, through January 30. Wednesday through Saturday.