Here we go again. The Washington gallery scene kicked off right on time Thursday night, and crowds of art groupies were there to participate, going in and out of the gallery doors to sample the new art season's offerings.
There are three particularly interesting shows on view this weekend. First, a broad selection of works by one of Washington's most venerable -- and venerated -- printmakers is on display at the Lauinger Library of Georgetown University. Curated by the Rev. Joseph Haller and cosponsored by the Washington Print Club, this is an uncommon opportunity to review a wide range of 83-year-old Prentiss Taylor's lithographs, watercolors, oils and designs for book jackets -- a body of work that spans some 60 years, many styles and subjects.
From Taylor's earliest lithographic edition, the Braque or Picasso-inspired "Negro Head" -- one of which is included in this exhibit -- it's clear that this artist has always been very sensitive to developments in the visual arts of the various periods through which his long career has carried him. At times, however, it seems as though he was in danger of submerging his own identity altogether by dint of his wide interests, and in his attempts to keep up with art world trends. You will see, for example, American regionalist-style prints in the manner of John Steuart Curry or Thomas Hart Benton, executed in the '30s and '40s, as well as works influenced by cubism, naive art, primitivism, art deco, the precisionists and other schools. Taylor's own direct and often intentionally childlike rendering is often the only thing that identifies such works as his own. And yet he was, on occasion, capable of polished realism that might do credit to a Martin Lewis or an Edward Hopper.
You can see how the artist swung from style to style to suit his subjects. Compare, for example, the regionalist-like "Connecticut Light & Power," a 1935 lithograph that functions almost as a morality statement by juxtaposing a ramshackle farmstead and a towering electrical pylon, with the primitive-influenced depiction of a Negro spiritual assemblage titled "Assembly Church," executed only a year later. For an even more startling example of Taylor's chameleon-like tendencies, look at the sophisticated realism of the prints "Feldman Quartet Rehearsing" (1967) and "Cliff & Ruin -- Canyon de Chelly" (1976), and compare these with the more gestural cover design for Langston Hughes's limited edition of poems, "Scottsboro Limited" (1932). Were it not for the signature, you'd be hard pressed to identify them as being by the same hand.
Watercolors at Osuna
One of the most fascinating exhibitions around is "English and Continental Watercolors of the 19th Century" at Osuna Gallery.
One rarely gets the chance to see really first-class watercolors these days. The medium has, at least on this side of the Atlantic, long been out of fashion for all but studies and cartoons of larger-scale acrylic or oil paintings, and the watercolor as a finished, complete art form appears to be regarded solely as the provenance of wildlife or marine painters and illustrators. But the last century, especially, witnessed a flowering of the art of watercolor, and this supremely difficult, exacting and unique medium was regarded as a test of the true master.
One can see why by examining the 19th-century Italian master Giuseppe Signorini's "The Violin Player." After the subject was rendered to an almost photographic degree of realism, the surface was finished with a light coat of clear shellac to give the image the brilliance of a varnished oil painting -- an age-old technique. Or look closely at some of the British watercolor works, 19th-century landscapes of English and exotic Middle Eastern vistas by Henry Bright, W.J. Ferguson, G.S. Ramsey and David Roberts, among others. Many of these meticulous paintings were destined to be reproduced as engravings or lithographs to illustrate travelogues and atlases, or limited-edition folios that the art- and travel-hungry Victorian public gobbled up, affording a reasonable livelihood to many an amateur landscapist.
Of these 19th-century European masters of the medium, the Italians and the French were perhaps the most flamboyant and romantic practitioners. Here one can see typical examples of this approach in works such as Ettore Simonetti's "A Love Letter: Scene From Rossini's Barber of Seville" (1883), or the anonymous French work "Street Scene at Aix-la-Chapelle."
Of the exhibition's few gouache paintings -- a form of watercolor that is applied opaquely like tempera or fresco, and has therefore an entirely different character than the transparent wash medium -- perhaps the finest is English painter John Smith's "View of Pompeii," which adorns the gallery announcement. This work proves that a watercolor can be every bit as impressive as an oil or acrylic painting, despite its (not necessarily) smaller size. The object of the fine watercolorist is to pull the viewer in with deft technique and detail, as opposed to slaying him with sheer size and volume of color -- something few modern painters save John Marin -- an American, oddly enough -- understood.
Rebecca Kamen at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick
At the Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick Gallery, new work by Rebecca Kamen shows this highly original abstract artist moving into promising new ground, as well as investigating a new technique.
Long interested in Oriental concepts of beauty and spirituality as expressed by such natural phenomena as clouds, rocks and water, Kamen deals in her most recent works principally with the Japanese concept of kami, wherein the vital life force energy is believed to reside in natural objects. To this end, the artist has designed a series of paintings of rock formations, simple tables and clouds executed on sheet aluminum in somber shades of ochre, maroon and blue, and scraped through in hard-edged lines to reveal the brilliant white gleam of the metal beneath. Some are cutouts, or wall reliefs of sorts, while others are images more traditionally couched in squares or rectangles.
The sharp metallic diagonals and straight edges of varying thicknesses pierce the more rounded, organic forms like electric needles that sometimes seem to pin them to the surface, and at others appear to cause them to leap out into the viewer's space.
Of all Kamen's recent works -- most of which employ the same lexicon of forms, variously composed and differently affected by the shiny aluminum lines -- perhaps the strongest are the series of tiny "Rock Window" paintings in wide frames. At only about two inches square, they are every bit as intriguing as the large-format pieces such as the lovely diptych "Kami Series No. 10," a tour de force that displays a sensitivity for spatial relationships rarely seen outside the haunted empty rooms of Francis Bacon's paintings.
The Art of Prentiss Taylor, at the Lauinger Library Special Collections Gallery, Georgetown University. Through Sept. 28.
English and Continental Watercolors of the 19th Century, at Osuna Gallery, 1919 Q St. NW, through Oct. 24.
Rebecca Kamen, New Work, at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW, through Oct. 20.