It seems that artists' intentions are always in doubt these days. Mindful of the NEA controversy and threats of censorship, the Dadian Gallery at Wesley Theological Seminary has launched "Risk and Integrity: Two Masters From Washington," with John Dickson and Robyn Johnson-Ross, precisely to remind us how effectively artists can use their medium to expose, examine and instigate understanding of the things -- and people -- our society would prefer to ignore.
Continuing the series of oil paintings she exhibited at Washington Project for the Arts in 1986, Johnson-Ross's disquieting interiors and shabby outdoor scenes focus on people, most of them black, whose hard, dry faces and stilted poses infuse them with a raw, painful feeling of not belonging. The stiff-legged woman in "Poppy" stands in a grove of trees, her thin dress drooping over her stolid frame. The brushy, luminous pastel colors around her speak of spring, but underlying them is the monotonous brown that runs throughout these paintings. Johnson-Ross conveys the stubborn resolve of life to keep going even in the face of the unremitting desolation of the poverty and uncertainty she documents.
In Dickson's series of found-object sculptures, brown again predominates. Unlike his usually colorful pieces, these generally waist-high works are nearly monochromatic, encrusted in a sludgy mud as if dredged from the bottom of some polluted waterway. Amputated chair legs writhe like serpents, mailboxes gape, strips of tire treads wrap around conch shells and a typewriter in an oddly poetic reference to spirals, cycles and protective enclosures. Like most found-object sculptures, they are rife with associations and speak in particular of the recycling of objects and ideas with attendant leaps of understanding.
Standing in the courtyard in front of the gallery, these works caused a stir among faculty and students, perhaps put off by their bizarre ugliness. But this is ugliness at its best. Eccentric, exuberant and thoroughly caught up with the ecology of earth, their ugliness shows up our own resistance to recognizing the processes of life and the overloads of human habitation.
Fitzgerald and Mishima-Colliou At Studio Gallery
The two Washington artists sharing the Studio Gallery this month could hardly be more different. Joe Fitzgerald's life-size charcoal portraits of friends and family are bold, comic and insightful. Japanese-born Chieko Mishima-Colliou's acrylic paintings are a fusion of abstract expressionism and the traditional calligraphy she studied in Kyoto.
Referencing Japanese ideograms, her wide, loose brush strokes suggest squares and architectural forms. A contrasting delicate interplay of arcing strokes infers movement and change. Strong color contrasts intensify the sense of light and shadow pervading these works, but the similarity to many other abstract expressionist paintings is too great. One longs for Mishima-Colliou to assert her own character, especially her calligraphic skill. The particular intimacy and sense of deep concord in "Songs in the Night," a small work in fleshy tones and fluent strokes of deep blue-black, bodes well for this development.
Fitzgerald is a blend of skilled draftsman and jester who uses humor as a window into the character of his subjects. The inscrutably mischievous glance of "Barry" dressed up in a hooded velour robe, the stop-action glimpse of energetic "Judith," a self-portrait in a leather jacket rendered with just a touch of staginess -- in each of these portraits, Fitzgerald discloses the essential nature of the person with an enviable lightness of touch. His succinct drawing style lends itself well to this subject matter, but his considerable skill is also evident in several landscapes available for viewing upon request.
Tamayo at Kimberly The Metropolitan Museum of Art's current exhibition "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," with its hundreds of little-known works of art, underscores how unfamiliar we are with the art and culture of our neighbors to the south. One of the living artists included in this show is Rufino Tamayo, who at 91 is a father figure of Mexican art. Represented in museum collections around the world, he is nonetheless relatively unknown in this country.
This is a show of 39 mixographs, created through a process pioneered by Tamayo and West Coast printmaker Luis Remba. The resultant richly textured prints span the past 16 years, documenting how Tamayo, like many older artists, has reduced his imagery to the bare essentials. With a mixture of playfulness and solemnity reminiscent of Picasso or Klee, lone or paired figures stand against backgrounds lively with texture and nuances of earthy colors. This vibrant space implies the cosmos and is often punctuated by a sun or moon. Within such space, Tamayo's subjects may muse, meditate, glower or smile, but always with a self-contained concentration that speaks less of the specific scenarios than of a knowledge of human states of mind gained through a lifetime of careful observation.
At times these images seem simplistic, even cartoonish. Yet a grinning sun personifies the old sun god, and a slice of watermelon colored an almost unbearably bright red becomes a celebration of the vibrancy and fecundity of life. To see these childlike images in this light is to awaken eyes, accustomed to the aesthetic north of the Rio Grande, to traditions and imagery that until recently were categorized as quaint exoticisms rather than serious art.
Risk and Integrity: Two Masters From Washington, at Dadian Gallery, Center for the Arts and Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary, 4500 Massachusetts Ave. NW, through Dec. 23. Joe Fitzgerald and Chieko Mishima-Colliou, at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through Dec. 1. Rufino Tamayo Mixographs, at Kimberly Gallery, 1621 21st St. NW, through Dec. 29.