Marlena, a Hamadryas baboon, looks as snooty as any aristocrat. Pink-faced, eyelids haughtily lowered, she is a perfect specimen posed against stark white. James Balog takes a bizarre approach to wildlife photography. Traveling in 1988-89 with all his studio equipment, the Colorado resident visited zoos and wildlife parks to photograph 96 species designated threatened or endangered. His dye-transfer portraits -- for portraits these are -- are as elegant and posed as Robert Mapplethorpe's and one longs for them to cause equal controversy.
In the irony of civilization, many endangered animals are living unnatural lives in captivity. Tempering the surreal tension of artificiality and exoticism with humor, Balog shows us a panda spotlighted in the center of an empty auditorium, a mandrill ruminating atop a stool and a rhinoceros wisely turning its lumpy rump to the camera. This traveling exhibition, now at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, and its accompanying book suggests how little we know and, at this point, can ever hope to know about the ways and vulnerabilities of these endangered animals.
Californian John Sexton, also at Ewing, comes from the other end of environmental photography. An assistant to Ansel Adams for five years, he shares the master's clarity and richness of detail. These landscapes, taken in America, China and Japan over the past 15 years, have also been collected into a book. From a perfectly ordered rice field bordering a pine forest where the stillness is palpable, to a grotto of boulders worn smooth and concave by swirling water, each of these black-and-white photographs is hushed, filled with an ethereal light. Their sheer beauty makes them spectacular, yet these are hidden places, set apart by Sexton's vision as much as their own remoteness. Strangely, the sense of otherworldliness in these works parallels Balog's surreal portrayals. Both exist outside our accustomed man-made environment, and both tell hauntingly of the precariousness of life on Earth.
Three Artists at the Nouveau Museum
This is the second exhibition at Georgetown's exuberant Nouveau International Arts Museum and Gallery, which opened in November. Founded by businessman and art lover Peter Rivera, the gallery is dedicated to new artists, both local and international.
The Nouveau Museum should prove an oasis for those who complain of the chill and formality of white-walled galleries. Its soft gray walls are filled with paintings, salon style. In a move guaranteed to make a curator's skin crawl, Rivera has chosen to mix an eclectic group of art objects in with the exhibit. Interestingly, the result is more comfortable than a conventional gallery and resembles the home of a collector whose divergent interests create provocative juxtapositions of artworks.
This show highlights the work of three artists. Small gestural sculptures by Washington artist Frank Kowing hang on the walls. While lacking craftsmanship, their colorful, painterly surfaces and the tension of their spiny forms promise stronger work to come. Likewise, the spare dream paintings of Peruvian Arveto Insua, while perhaps too extravagantly fantastic, cannot be easily dismissed. These surreal scenes are bound together in a curiously haunting web of archetypal symbolism.
The sculptures of New Zealander Santjes Oomen are the high point of this show. Suspended just above eye level, "Vaporous Vessel" is an exquisitely frail hull over which hang three fibrous balls made from elephant hair. With wispy brown feathers brushing its gritty, translucent surface, it evokes an unearthly journey eerily linked with the tactile solidity of the physical world.
Thanks to private support, this alternative gallery is able to donate its share of sales to a changing list of charities. With its unusual approach and commitment to showing artists not seen before in Washington, it is a refreshing addition to the city's gallery scene.
William Woodward at Fendrick Gallery
William Woodward's "Back to Brittany" is a summery show for a wintery time of year. For the past 22 years, Woodward has spent his summers in Brittany, until the summer of 1989, when he stayed in Virginia to work on a mural for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus headquarters. Painted on his return to the Brittany coast in the summer of 1990, these oils and watercolors are a burst of spontaneity after the tightly rendered detail of the mural.
The loose, joyful brushwork of paintings such as "Reflections in the Sand at Low Tide" finds Woodward at his best. Big clouds billow across the sky, houses tinged blue and purple are mirrored in the wet sand and water that spread across the foreground. The whole scene is active, full of dappled light and reflections.
There are some paintings here in which Woodward's enthusiasm lags. "Audierne, Little Beach" is far too pedestrian. Under a mundane sky, the bathers gathered on the sand and the vegetation clinging to the slope of the shoreline are indicated in an offhand way, without the descriptive virtuosity to be expected of one of Washington's most fluent realist painters.
That virtuosity is much in evidence in "Breakfast in August." The repetitious shapes of the tables and chairs of a street cafe, which might easily become a plodding exercise in lesser hands, are a dance of light and movement. Woodward simultaneously turns the pale greens, purples, blues and pinks of morning sunlight into both solidly rendered forms and a dematerialized play of pure festivity. This ability to portray the sensations of a scene as well as its objective reality is the mark of Woodward's skill.
James Balog and John Sexton, at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave., Suite 200, through Jan. 27.
Three Artists, at Nouveau Museum, 1155 30th St. NW, second floor, through mid-January.
William Woodward, at Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, through Jan. 12.