At de Andino Fine Arts, Jeffrey Smith opens the season with his first one-man show. And it's a magnificent debut. This young Washington painter's bold, original abstracts -- landscapes of sorts -- have been seen about town in various group shows for several years now, most notably at the Washington Project for the Arts last fall. But it's refreshing to be able to spend time with a whole galleryful of his big diptychs and fine charcoal drawings -- and the guy really has a way with charcoal.
Smith's paintings, composed of map lines superimposed on horizontally divided fields of color, defy comfortable categorization. They have about them a powerful esoteric, modernist component, yet they are not abstract expressionist or color field paintings, nor do they attempt to reprise any of the familiar expressionist devices. Certainly they do not abide by the strictures of Clement Greenberg's adjurations about the overwhelming importance of the painted surface (as opposed to content). But neither are they in the strictest sense representational, for the artist employs the atlas-derived outlines of various countries not solely as a means of fixing a place or reference in the viewer's mind, but more for the delightful fractal randomness of their contours. With the outlines removed from the context of the atlas, scribed in blurred, thickly painted lines across seemingly endless depths of smoky color, it takes a while for their origins to register. They function almost as a kind of prefab automatic writing, enigmatic while vaguely familiar.
But what's truly impressive about Smith's work is his technical virtuosity. Compare his big, gloriously spacious and summery painting "Automatic Earth" (a title presumably taken from a line in Paul Simon's song "Boy in a Bubble") with the richly worked "Ocean," in antique-looking browns and blues. While both works are designed around a similar format -- a diptych assembled horizontally to separate "earth" from "sky," for want of a better description -- technically the two have been approached very differently, and owe their unique mood and visual impact to sheer painterly virtuosity.
"Locations of Desire" is another of those angst-ridden rubrics popular these days with gallery group shows that profess to embrace some kind of mutually shared artistic intent. But often as not such lofty descriptions wind up being artsy attempts to lump only vaguely related works together in a single catalogue, replete with a suitably impenetrable exegesis.
Such is the three-woman show of the above title currently at Brody's Gallery. Not that there isn't some good art here. There is. But of the three Chicago-based artists, Phyllis Bramson, Michiko Itatani) and Vera Klement, Bramson's is the only work that even remotely conforms to the implications of "Locations of Desire." And it's the least inspiring. Poorly painted pseudo-Japanese renderings of pseudo-Japanese women doing pseudo-interesting things -- such as gazing longingly at weird flowers. The only "desire" they inspire is to remove them from the vicinity of the other two artists' excellent and original efforts.
Klement has a knack for making thickly painted, simplified images seem almost three-dimensional when juxtaposed. Her subjects -- a figure or a boat here, a portion of brick wall or field there -- seem not to have much in common. Yet isolated on bright white gessoed canvas, then mounted together as diptychs, these unlikely compositions have an almost disquieting power. Their intended message is beside the point in terms of their visual impact. The same goes for her excellent woodcuts. Klement is an artist who knows how to grab the eye and hold it, letting it delight in exploring the possibilities of everyday objects.
Itatani is a different proposition entirely. Her paintings derive their power from a combination of an almost cinematic pictorial arrangement, described with forceful draftsmanship and the clever use of interwoven colored grids to enhance the illusion of depth of field, and subtle references to notable images from the tradition of Western art. Look at the untitled piece from "Blind, Floating, Counting," for example. This large-scale work unfolds in the mind the way Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" does, bursting from the center with a swirl of limbs, hands and half-rendered muscles. The association may or may not be intentional, but it works beautifully.
Abstractions at Middendorf
Middendorf Gallery kicks off the season with a group show of new abstract paintings. Although some of the old familiar names are here -- Sam Gilliam, Jacob Kainen and William Willis among them -- the really outstanding works come from two fresh names on the scene: Lynn Flanagan Bowers and Stephen Freitch.
Kainen's single offering, "Envoy III," is up to his usual standards of glowing color and luscious brushwork, and Willis also turns in a command performance with his two small abstracts. But Gilliam's one entry, a painted wall piece, is curiously lifeless and formalistic. Not at all what we've come to expect of him. Hector Almodovar's indecisive and ambiguous mixed-media-on-burlap pieces are also sadly bland in the company of the more rigorous and dynamic work by Bowers and Sylvia Snowden.
So take your time over Bowers's two striking paintings, "Gangbusters" and "Empty Quarters." Both are entirely black-and-white, yet by no means monochromatic. In fact, because of the artist's lively, gestural technique and careful application of various blacks, whites and grays, they seem positively brilliant. "Brilliant black" may seem an oxymoron, but that's the only way to describe her works adequately. If you think of contemporary black-and-white expressionist painting -- and it's been gaining currency in many circles -- only in terms of Susan Rothenberg-like New York hip, Bowers will make you see it in a different (dare I say it?) light.
In the upstairs gallery, nicely complementing the work of Kainen and Willis, are Freitch's simple but stately "Icarus" compositions of encaustic and raw linen. In some ways reminiscent of Barnett Newman's "Stations of the Cross" at the National Gallery, these smaller, more purposefully geometric works are compelling, and, like all good art, impose about themselves the silence of contemplation.
Jeffrey Smith, Paintings and Drawings, at de Andino Fine Arts, 1609 Conn. Ave. NW, Suite 300, through Oct. 13.
Locations of Desire, group show at Brody's Gallery, 1706 21st St. NW, through Sept. 29.
New Abstract Paintings, at Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, through Oct. 20.