William Newman first began making his strange, distorted images back in the early 1980s, feeding photographs or drawings into his Apple computer and stretching them vertically or horizontally. But although he utilizes contemporary technology, image distortion of this sort -- known as anamorphic manipulation -- is nothing new. In 1533 German painter Hans Holbein the Younger distorted the image of a skull in the foreground of his famous double portrait "The Ambassadors," so that from the front it resembles a curiously patterned shield leaning against the table, and only registers when looked at from an acute angle beneath the picture. Michelangelo also made good use of the technique in his monumental "Last Judgment."
At David Adamson Gallery, an exhibit of Newman's recent "stretch paintings" takes the idea far further than he's attempted before. This is not mere visual trickery. The stretched images, oddly, seem to have a power to reveal more of their subjects' characters, as if capable of showing not only another dimension of a sitter's physical features, as cubism attempted to do, but also another dimension of personality as well.
Take, for example, the artist's self-portrait "Peripheral Vision." This arresting painting combines implied motion with inventive color and pattern. Newman's face on the left side of the composition is looking out with an alert, penetrating expression. Then, as though he accidentally moved during a long photographic exposure, his face slides to the right, whereupon it assumes an entirely different, pensive -- even sad -- mien. The lines pulled across the center of the canvas that once defined the nose, deep-set eyes and mouth become almost the elements of a landscape.
But this powerful psychological impact is only one element of Newman's work. First and foremost these are paintings, regardless of the technological origin of the images. A number of them verge on the abstract, having been manipulated with the brush practically beyond recognition. Seen at an angle to the picture plane, while the figures and faces don't all resolve entirely, they at least become recognizable.
Though many of these new portraits and paintings of lovers are confrontational or brooding -- especially those stretched vertically to provoke a sense of profound disquiet -- there are some that are playful. An attenuated portrait of the artist's parrot, Spy, becomes quite a comical sight after having undergone the stretching business, and his crafty avian expression warrants the title of the picture, "I, Spy." Wolf Kahn at Kornblatt Neo-impressionist landscape painter Wolf Kahn takes a lot of chances. When he succeeds, he makes very good pictures. When he fails, he fails utterly.
At the BR Kornblatt Gallery, a selection of five years of Kahn's oils and pastels gives an interesting if wildly inconsistent overview of his recent work. The artist, it would seem, draws on influences as diverse as Monet and Richard Diebenkorn, and his palette ranges from sober blacks and grays to vivid golds, reds and lavenders. Like the original impressionists, Kahn never uses a value (a color tinted with varying shades of gray) to indicate shadow when a contrasting bright color will do: ultramarine blue to shade a yellow object, for example. This method of rendering has its advantages, such as creating vibrant color patterns that lend an abstract, painterly dimension to otherwise representative work. But it also has drawbacks. All too often, he winds up with painfully garish combinations of hues, or what could be described as violent mud.
When his experimentation works, however, Kahn can produce stunning compositions, such as the lovely "Chincoteague." A view over a field with two rooftops in the background, executed as if seen through textured glass and suffused with golden light, this smallish canvas is a real tour de force. Drawings & Paintings by Jody Mussoff The characters in Jody Mussoff's immediately recognizable pictures have changed little over the years. The same strong-featured, athletic-figured young women -- the artist herself among them -- are persistent subjects, posed theatrically against stark white or black backgrounds, staring out at us with startled expressions.
Her current one-woman show at Gallery K trots out this by-now predictable cast, both in her familiar colored pencil drawings, and in a number of new oil paintings. The paintings are quite successful, for her vigorous drafting style translates well into the medium.
While there are some interesting new images, one can't help but wish Mussoff could draw one figure that didn't have that startled or shocked expression on her face. Despite this, Mussoff remains one of the most distinctive draftsmen around, with an unmistakable graphic style that at its best rivals some work by Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele.
William Newman: New Paintings, at David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Nov. 20.
Wolf Kahn: Paintings and Pastels, at BR Kornblatt Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Nov. 24.
Jody Mussoff: Paintings and Drawings, at Gallery K, 2010 R St. NW, through today.