It isn't overstating the case to say that there are precious few painters anywhere today who come close to Tom Nakashima's painterliness and aesthetic originality. So we're lucky to have a six-year retrospective of his work at the Washington Project for the Arts. This is one of the most impressive exhibits mounted there in a long while, and it shows off to best advantage a number of this artist's large paintings as well as constructions, drawings, prints and byobu screens.
Nakashima's big, starkly chiaroscuro compositions such as the haunting "Sanctuary" and "Cage," with their inventive use of gold leaf, glazing and rich surface texture, are unique. At first encounter these have the almost disconcerting appearance of richly decorated Japanese lacquerware -- but lacquerware designed by a Western expressionist painter. It's this visual dialectic that makes Nakashima's work so intriguing. Over the years he's devised a lexicon of symbols derived from the complex duality of his Japanese American heritage: There are Oriental elements -- such as the kami heads, giant fish and open, templelike structures, seemingly filled with liquid light -- and there are atavisms of Western European culture, such as the voluptuous, iconic female figures that echo ancient fertility carvings. All of these recur throughout Nakashima's works, albeit in various incarnations to suit different compositions.
Nakashima's muscular, representational style can perhaps best be described as similar in feeling -- and to a degree in intention -- to that of German artist Anselm Kiefer. Not only is it an amalgam of cultural influences, it is rich with references to politics and human relationships, as well as allusions to such timeless themes as sexuality and traditional and contemporary mythology. But first and foremost it is powerful imagery, almost theatrical. Here is an artist who understands how to transfix a viewer, coax one into a picture by the use of moody color combinations, dynamic graphics and strong diagonal composition. Once there, the symbolic figures prod one's memory and spur the mind to try to divine their meaning.
Three particular works in this show speak eloquently to Nakashima's versatility. The two striking standing screens, "Self Portrait as Sea Monster Contemplating the Moon" and "Rebirth," both incorporate sources as diverse as the graceful 18th-century Ukiyo-e School prints, the encaustic works of Jasper Johns and the expressionism of Max Beckmann, all flawlessly synthesized. Spend some time too with the lovely monoprint and pencil piece "Great Stick." Recalling a sea monster itself, the stick pokes its knobbed head above rippled water. Few artists indeed can make enduring art from such a simple subject.
'Four Women Sculptors' Lisa Austin, Allene Bary-Cooper, Beverly Ress and Margot Schnitzer de Neuhaus are about as different from one another as they can be. But the District of Columbia Arts Center has managed to make of their work a definitive and interesting show nonetheless.
"Four Women Sculptors" offers an overview of several distinct disciplines dominating much contemporary sculpture. To begin with, there are the minimal gray-shale-and-wood or -steel works of de Neuhaus, which evince the timeless appeal of landscape. Some of this artist's pieces -- especially the lovely "Inroads I" -- strongly recall the early stone studies of Jim Sanborn, and certainly deal with much the same planar and spatial concerns. While not all of de Neuhaus's works suggest landscape in miniature, they are all "earthy" in that she always maintains the integrity of her natural materials, and employs the carefully varnished wood and painted steel stands for their contrast value. They heighten the sense that these stone compositions were found as is rather than composed and worked by hand.
Austin's untitled installation takes an entirely different approach. Painted in brilliant acrylic colors, this jungle of pseudo-organic wood and cardboard objects comes across like a crazy synthetic garden, a kind of playroom for future children who may never see the great outdoors. There are green-painted topiary forms, fleurs-de-lis "flagstones," gaily colored window frames and furniture that wouldn't look out of place in the Land of Oz. The overall effect is wonderfully weird and not a little disorienting, and it's something of a shock to leave this work and walk into Bary-Cooper's sobering installation "Vigil of the Vested Virgins."
Here we have what looks to be the popular fertility ritual cum woman-as-Earth Mother motif dissected in grim laboratory fashion. On the floor are arranged 14 headless acrylic torsos, the sort you might see in a bra display at a department store. But they're partly covered with a kind of micalike gray substance, and all are filled with stony-looking "eggs." A pile of these "eggs" sits before them on a nest of fiberglass insulation. Don't ask me what it all means.
And finally there is Ress's installation, cryptically titled "Wyoming Mountains." A giant paper cone or cornucopia is slung under a spiderlike, laminated plywood framework. It's a striking piece, but given its seeming irrelevance to the title, I don't know what it means, either. But even if you take it at face value, that's more than sufficient.
Kathryn Henneberry at Foundry At the Foundry Gallery, some recent paintings by Kathryn Henneberry celebrate sheer love of light and color. Although several of these brightly colored abstractions verge dangerously on the decorative, the more successful of them are powerful compositions.
Henneberry works in acrylic over applied forms of torn and cut canvas glued or gessoed to the surface. Without, properly speaking, glazing -- as one might with oil paint thinned with damar varnish or another medium -- Henneberry manages to achieve a convincing "stained glass" effect in some pieces by rubbing down the pigment until it's transparent and by highlighting with values of white-saturated color. This comes off best with her studies in thalo blue, such as the glowingly pretty "Blue Passage." But this device can become something of a crutch, and her strongest works are those in which she has allowed her facility for gestural expressionism to come through too.
In pieces such as "Eye of the Night" and "Scarlet Damask," Henneberry has dug in with thick, dark, opaque colors, adding an element of line and an elusive sculptural aspect. This nicely offsets the transparencies, making them more an integral part of the compositions and less the product of single-minded process.
Now that she's mastered the effect of glowing light, it would be good to see Henneberry stretch out into the area of brushwork and draftsmanship. Defining volume and surface reality will prevent her from slipping into mannerism, as happens to so many abstract painters who discover a comfortable, if successful, pictorial device.