The Washington Project for the Arts is spotlighting four mature Washington artists who, in WPA's opinion, deserve more attention than they've had.
No argument here.
Titled "Four Solo Artists," this handsomely installed show presents what are, in fact, four mini-exhibitions: by Nancy Palmer, who uses photocopies to make room-size murals and installations; Mildred Baldwin and Stephen Frietch, respectively figurative and abstract painters; and, in the video gallery, Nancy Freeman, who works with computer-generated images.
They could not be more varied in method or intent.
The first gallery is devoted to four highly patterned mural-size works by Palmer, who gives xerography a fresh, new monumental aspect by blowing up and repeating individual images (of anything from human arms to Gothic church ceilings) in vast, overlapping collages that she then magically transforms into something abstract.
On one wall, for example, bright "process blue" photocopies based on photographs of shimmering water come together as an eye-boggling pattern seemingly observed through a kaleidoscope. Another piece, based on blueprints, reads like a waving flag that seems to flip back and forth in space.
It isn't all visual trickery -- that just seems to be the latest twist in the work of this accomplished painter-printmaker and Corcoran School of Art professor, whose handmade monoprints also provide some of her basic forms. In fact, until now, Palmer's installations have been involved primarily with imagery taken from art history books, as in the large black-and-white mural here that is based on repetitions of drapery details from an old master painting. In company with the other works on view, this particular piece seems just plain repetitious and boring.
The question is: Will some area developer have the imagination to adapt one of Palmer's works for a lobby installation?
At 33, Baldwin is the youngest artist in the show, but also the most traditional in approach. A figurative painter, she focuses here exclusively on memories of what seems a happy, if often uprooted, life. The daughter of a minister and a seamstress who moved often throughout North and South Carolina, Baldwin was one of 15 children. Her memories, though unaided by photographs, include a great many details that add up to warm scenes of pleasant meals and Christmas mornings, and -- above all -- of kids gathered in the kitchen or around the television set.
There's also a large portion of nostalgia, most poignantly expressed in the kitchen scene titled "Missing Everything" and, even better, in "Missing Carolina," a view from a bed looking out into the hallway of a house the artist obviously remembers fondly. A lovely little seascape on the bedroom wall -- seemingly more a window into reverie than a painting -- is so beautifully done that one wishes Baldwin would spend more time painting the out-of-doors. The device of signifying nostalgia by dissolving the edges around more dreamy scenes is far less satisfying, even cliched.
Baldwin's work, by the way, inspired a newly commissioned piece by the Home Theatre for New Columbia titled "Live/Set," which will be performed at WPA Friday and Saturday.
About as different as they could be are the hard-edge abstractions of Frietch, whose assembled rectangles are softened mightily by the sensuous encaustic medium in which he works. Made of beeswax and pigment, the surfaces have a lush, luminous quality, but work best when he keeps the forms simple, the colors subtle, as in the opalescent "Icarus VII" and soft blue "Daedalus II."
Most successful among the larger, more ambitious relief paintings is "Sicilia," which somehow captures the coloration and texture of antique Japanese lacquer.
Freeman's show is based on photographs of faces, including her own. It is appropriately placed in WPA's video gallery, where two monitors show the images she generates and manipulates before printing them out, reproducing them in color photocopy, and, finally, hanging them in grids of increasing size, up to wall-size.
There's a lot more to it than that, and Freeman is widely known outside Washington as something of a virtuoso at her Amiga computer. But as she says in the handsome brochure for her show (each of these artists has his own), "The computer is just a tool." It is, she says, "the aesthetic choices that make the art."
Innumerable choices have clearly been made between the video image and the printout, the complexity of which will be clearer to those who have worked with such tools. The results, however, are not hard to judge. The largest work here, "Three Giant Sisters," by far the most successful, depicts a computer-manipulated head (her own), broken up into three grids of increasing size, each made from color laser-printed paper. In the largest of the three, which is 9 by 9 feet, the image reaches the most satisfying balance between image and abstraction.
In some others, notably "Closing In," the addition of oil pastel and gilding results in works that seem superficial and overly fussy.
Though museum trustees are customarily discouraged from meddling in the business of organizing shows, the artist-run WPA is different; it has put two of its artist-board members to work assembling the efforts of this commendable foursome. Freeman's show was curated by Linda Lewett, a film and video producer, and the shows by Palmer, Baldwin and Frietch were curated by artist and WPA trustee Pat Fox.
Red Grooms at the Fed
It's hard to believe, but everybody's favorite cutup artist, Red Grooms, is looking a bit dated in the traveling survey of his graphic work on view at the Federal Reserve Building.
Or is it just the '70s, his heyday, that are looking dated? It's probably both.
In any case, there are enough of Grooms's best prints here -- notably the pop-up, 3-D portraits of Gertrude Stein (albeit seemingly faded) and "London Bus" -- to offer the lunchtime visitor who has walked a block or two some respite from the summer doldrums.
Grooms's best portfolio, that nerve-jangling paean to Manhattan streets in rain and snow titled "No Gas," is also here, along with etchings and lithographs dating from 1957 to 1985.
Four Solo Artists, at the Washington Project for the Arts, 400 Seventh St. NW. Gallery hours are Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Aug. 25.
Red Grooms, graphic work, at the Federal Reserve Building, on C Street between 20th and 21st streets NW. Open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Through Aug. 17.