Call him one of the Washington Spiritualists. John Figura paints allegories of life and death, wields the high-caliber devices of myth and symbol, and deftly quotes Joseph Campbell. This is not a painter who nibbles at the scraps of postmodernism's nouvelle cuisine. This artist crunches the flesh and bones of the Big Questions.
His solo show at Anton Gallery features 13 canvases, all from this year. The symbols of water, moon, boat and tree -- tree of knowledge or life -- are present throughout. So is a sense of struggle, both in the subject and on the surface of the paintings.
In the large double canvas "Wings," the central symbol is a winged object, too primal to be a bird, more like something we would prefer to keep suppressed in the psyche. On the left it falls Icarus-like from a gilded sky toward a tar-black sea where a blue moon pulses. On the right it rises through a churning sky of white and rose. The opposing allegories provide the conflict that make Figura an essentially dramatic painter.
Figura's past as an abstractionist is apparent in the sharply divided fields of color. Objects are present more as color or tone than as line or form. There is conflict here too. The works have a sculptural quality and are nearly as tactile as they are visual: The surfaces are swollen with great clots and veins of oil. Submerged layers of color bubble beneath the surface, leaching up to render what we see richer and more complex -- just as Figura's symbols are meant to do within our consciences.
Figura, 38, has a soft-spoken manner that doesn't quite match the fury and drama of the paintings. "I'm not interested in making ironic statements with my art," he says. Myth and symbol are the driving forces behind these works, propelling them beyond the merely formal. When he has them in control, as he does especially well in "Argonaut" and "Purification," he speaks a compelling language, evidence of the artist's spiritual vision. Artists 'Outcry' in Arlington When "Outcry: Artists Answer AIDS" was first shown in Baltimore last summer, an activist group protested that the show protested too little. Ideology demanded outrage as the appropriate response to the crisis.
Outrage does not dominate the present show at the Arlington Arts Center. The outcry of these 12 Baltimore-area artists is more a muted lament -- but no less effective.
Typical of the oblique approach is Ann Fessler's photo arrangement, "AIDS Cross." Four black and white prints of a pair of hands -- palms up, limp and passive, in grainy shadow like a shot from a morgue -- encircle a '50s photo of men and women standing in separate rows against a wall, suggesting a police lineup. Allegorical rather than didactic, the piece invites the viewer to think first, react second.
The same is true of Nicholas Corrin's untitled oil, painted well enough that no map of doctrine is needed to explore its images of a ghostly bird of prey over a skeletal victim, while a shrouded figure waits in an open tomb below. Virginia Brown's frank and simple photo portraits of AIDS victims don't need to strain for impact.
Not every piece is so understated. Josef Schutzenhofer's triptych, "Papal AIDS-Mobile (Starring Glemp, Krenn and Wojtyla)," has the pope driving a hybrid personnel carrier, while two cardinals sit in the back, preparing to shoot arrows at condom-balloons.
Illness, as Susan Sontag and other writers have pointed out, is a metaphor for our time. Perhaps our very discussion of AIDS is afflicted. Emotion conquers judgment, polemic so easily flares into propaganda. Is AIDS too apocalyptic a subject to be approached other than through aggressive agitprop? Some of the thoughtful artists in this show suggest otherwise, and point to contemplation not as a substitute for action, but as a first step toward it.
Lobby Standouts New York had its lower Manhattan factories and warehouses to convert, Paris its boutiques and ateliers of the Left Bank, Beaubourg and the Bastille. Washington, being the urban oddity that it is, with no real manufacturing or retail past, is not rich in convertible space that can be used by gallery owners or artists to show art. But the city does have an intemperate quantity of one thing: office buildings.
The lobby of one, at 901 E St. NW, is being used to show 34 works by 15 area artists. It is a sensible initiative, and the building's developer, Quadrangle Development Corp., should be applauded. This may even be the start of a trend. If so, the current show, "La Joie de Vivre," serves as a good example of what to avoid.
A few of these works have enough spirit to fight against the newly renovated lobby's overwhelming size and flash. The remaining works are swallowed in its two-story brass and marble jaws. Upon entering, attention is drawn not to the art, but to a central throne, worthier of a Roman emperor than the security guard who sits there sleepily surveying the scene, armed with a Walkman against the piped-in baroque string music.
Among the art that survives its surroundings is Luc-Michel Legendre's "Adam and Eve," muscular, phosphorescent-colored figures of oil and plaster that seem to be struggling to burn through to the surface of the canvas. Bob Booth's "Dancers," a stylized, semiabstract bronze sculpture, has a powerful grace. William Dunlap's "The Deer Head for Antietam Too," an oil and mixed media on canvas, is a haunting portrait of dead or dying deer emerging from a field of snow. And Laura Maley's "Potentia #3" is an intriguing exploration of the boundary between photo and painting.
Other pieces simply look lost. V.V. Rankine's rectangular acrylic sculptures stacked against the lobby's imposing central columns look like empty display cases abandoned by impatient workmen.
It does not help that the show has been bafflingly curated. The scattershot diversity of styles is more exasperating than enriching, like a child channel-surfing through the cable stations.
Despite the drawbacks here, the office building as gallery is still a good idea for Washington. But between idea and realization there is often a deep pit, and this show tumbles into it.
John Figura, at Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through Dec. 8.
Outcry: Artists Answer AIDS, at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, through Jan. 12. The video "Every Eighteen Minutes" by Todd Clark will be shown throughout today in observance of "Day Without Art," part of the international AIDS Awareness Day.
La Joie de Vivre -- Art in Washington at Arts 901, 901 E St. NW, through Jan. 10.