SIMON GOUVERNEUR'S playful paintings of circles, diamonds and zigzags are as orderly as chess and as mystical as Ouija boards.
Gouverneur, who lives in Washington and teaches at the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts in Baltimore, has invented a sort of artistic Esperanto. His paintings, displayed at the Bader Gallery, chart his language's symbols and syntax. They recall ancient hieroglyphics and Indian sand paintings. While he invites the viewer's struggle to find the underlying order in his work, he doesn't want us to speak his universal language -- or even understand it, for that matter. The artist's system lies just out of reach.
"Welkin" is apparently a periodic table of language. It looks a little like a Bingo card surrounded by a roulette wheel. The letters in "Welkin" have that same maddening regularity as the can-you-detect-the-pattern questions on IQ tests.
His work is engaging. "Logos" suggests a color wheel, a linguistic chart and a fantastic molecule of interconnected atoms. "Trickster" feels like a page from a magician's notebook, purposefully obscure, with the artist's interpretation of the occult symbols of star and moon. "Home" -- somehow Parcheesi and baseball come to mind -- poses artistic questions while its basic symbols conjure up dreams of Las Vegas and Parker Brothers.
Intellectually, Gouverneur conveys modern concerns -- a mourning for a loss of meaning in language and a need for order in a chaotic world. His "Vessel" -- a sort of Egyptian reed boat afloat on a zigzag sea -- suggests that weightiness.
But he's also saying you don't have to take the game so seriously.
Jennie Lea Knight, another local artist exhibiting at Bader, studied with Color School painter Kenneth Noland and worked with Wendel Castle, sculptor of fantastical furniture. Knight's wall sculptures in an intuitive way show the influences of both.
But more than that, this deceptively minimalist work, done in the early '70s, was influenced by a farm. At that time, Knight had a studio on a farm in the Shenandoah. Her titles ("Nick's Pond"; "Sundown -- Fauquier") readily admit to what the viewer has already discovered.
Knight's sculptures remind you of rustic farmers' tools that hang on the wall of the shed. But they have, at the same time, sleek, polished-smooth surfaces. And they are landscapes: "Piedmont Winter" is one of her horizontal sculptures that makes use of the negative space -- in this case, the white wall behind the piece shows through as a snowscape.
Similarly, "Toward Orchard Hill" is a window of oak and mahogany -- a warm, enclosing environment -- that compels us to look out at blank space.
Where Knight fails to make good use of the negative space -- such as in "Hedgerow," where pine is built up in steps on a long horizontal -- the sculptures fall flat.
There's more than a hint of Matisse in George Chung's sensuously reclining "Yellow Nude." But he's not trying to hide it. And some Picasso in "Writer's Block," a huge, bored Oscar Wilde sort of face, which the artist has set tormentedly askew. There's even a glimmer of Chagall.
Yet Chung is audaciously original. His parents are Chinese, and he grew up in Panama. The combination makes for a new way of looking at things. Among his aquatints and etchings at Washington Printmakers Gallery, in "Cabana by the Sea" he finds oriental shapes loose on the wind in a tropical setting.
Chung studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, went home to Panama to work in the family shoe business, then, in 1982, moved to the Washington area, fortunately giving up shoe manufacturing for print making.
The undefinable, delicious faces he draws are humorous or mind-tweaking, such as the soft, mysterious woman in "Banner." Yards and yards of fabric surround her, the cloth in different colors and designs. In this, Chung is pushing the three-plate aquatint process to its limits.
SIMON GOUVERNEUR and JENNIE LEA KNIGHT --
Bader Gallery, 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, through March 19. 10 to 6, Tuesday through Saturday.
GEORGE CHUNG --
Washington Printmakers' Gallery, 2106 R Street NW, through March 26. 11 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday.
The "Galleries" column also appears in Saturday's Style section.