PHILLIP RATNER IS the Norman Rockwell of bronze. Which is to say he has raised caricature to the level of high art without losing its emotion, accessibility and humor.
Ratner's "Ellis Island Suite," commissioned for the restored immigration depot, is the centerpiece of "Becoming Americans," a low-key, high-impact exhibit at Washington's B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum.
Focused on the 2.25 million Jews who funneled through Ellis Island, the show also embraces the 20 million others who joined the worldwide exodus to the land of opportunity during the peak years of 1880 to 1921, after which racial and ethnic restrictions began to board up the "golden door."
The story is simply and powerfully told through the juxtaposition of scores of Ratner's sculptures with classic archival photographs and austerely spare text by curator Alan M. Kraut, an American University history professor.
Ratner's bronzes have the angular grace of figures by Giacometti, but without their calculation, and continued on next page from previous page the expressiveness of Daumier's caricatures, but without their savagery. Although utterly different in style, Ratner's tone and subject matter are reminiscent of John Rogers (1829-1904), the great illuminator of "ordinary" (which is to say real) American life. Dancing on the very edge of sentimentality, and occasionally slipping into it, Ratner recreates the bold, sad, promising and fearsome experience of cutting off one's family roots in hopes of finding free soil where the branches can grow.
The richness and variety of these studies of immigrants is almost overwhelming, although anyone who saw "Phil Ratner's Washington" at the Smithsonian will not be surprised. Ratner's body of work, which includes commissions for groups ranging from the judiciary to judaica, seems enormous for an artist who's only in his fifties -- and who spent 20 years teaching art at Anacostia High School.
BECOMING AMERICANS -- Through April 15 at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum, 17th and Rhode Island Ave. NW. 202/857-6583. Open 10 to 5 Sunday through Friday. Requested donation is $2 adults, $1 seniors and children.Metro: Farragut North, L Street exit. Excellent wheelchair access.