David Frye's vigorous jumbles of thickly scumbled scraps of wood, found objects and collaged images seem almost to scream with the scary cacophony of the inner city. But that isn't necessarily an endorsement. At the Anton Gallery through today, a new collection of this artist's constructions is almost too much to look at all in one go, in spite of the relatively small size of the individual works.
Other artists in Washington have a similarly many-faceted approach to imagemaking -- Big Al Carter and Sidney Lawrence immediately come to mind. But those two show more inventiveness, a greater ability to combine styles and graphic effects for visual variety and dynamism. Also, they know when enough is enough. This isn't to say that Frye doesn't try to be eclectic. To the contrary, he mixes many techniques and styles, ranging from a Lawrence-like bold simplicity to complex modernist abstract designs and expressionism. Here and there he also includes some rather sensitively rendered representational vignettes, such as the lovely little bottle-cum-candle in the wall piece "Drunk Tank."
The trouble is that overall it's too much. Frye's most effective pieces here are the smallest of them, such as the tiny works made of bottle tops, corks and other odds and ends in the wall-mounted "Satellite Series." These are simpler, more graceful and less arcane than the larger constructions. The artist seems to become visually prolix when he tackles large-scale concepts, such as the free-standing and almost intimidatingly cluttered "Hangover City." It's as if to him, a larger size is simply an excuse to cram more stuff into a piece.
While it's all well and good to try to create complex aggregations of objects and imagery to convey a sense of environment in miniature, there's a limit to what constitutes effective or interesting composition. Too much, and the viewer simply gives up. This principle works along the lines of public advertising: A well-placed billboard can convey a lot, but the jungle of lights, logos and messages in, say, Times Square is self-defeating, in that it's virtually impossible to take all of it in, or to single out a particular piece -- no matter how beautifully crafted or thoughtfully worded it may be. Paul Suttman at Franz Bader It isn't really a new idea at all, but if skillfully done, the rendering of lifelike objects in unlikely media is a technique that still has the power to impress, surprise and enchant. It can be argued, of course, that the clever still lifes of Paul Suttman on view at Franz Bader Gallery, which consist of various fruits, bottles and paper bags executed in bronze, wood and stone, verge dangerously on the purely kitsch. They do in fact recall the sort of centerpieces one sometimes sees on dining room tables, such as a bowl of grapes formed of glass or jade, probably purchased on a trip to Hong Kong. But this artist is evidently fully aware of this potential pitfall, and to his credit manages to circumvent it.
Suttman does this in several ways. First of all, he employs visual as well as material puns. For example, he might cast a pear in bronze, then paint the bronze white, so that it might just as well be wood or clay. Then he might juxtapose this curiosity with an apple also made of bronze, but with so convincing a patina that it's hard to tell it from the real thing. Of course, for this sort of subterfuge to register completely, it would be best if one could pick up and heft the objects, but this is not something I can recommend attempting in a gallery. Still, just knowing what the material is -- and this can be adduced from the identification cards -- adds spice to the experience of viewing the work.
Above all, there is Suttman's skill in direct carving of material. The large and beautifully finished mahogany bag of apples titled "Eve's Gift," for example, works as a sculpture if only by virtue of its manifest craftsmanship. What is communicated in such works is the plain joy of making objects. And that, of course, is vital to the success of any artistic undertaking. 'A New Leaf' at Jane Haslem "Turning Over a New Leaf," at Jane Haslem Gallery through today, is a huge, unfocused ramble of a show, featuring dozens of artists working in dozens of media and styles on dozens of subjects, both abstract and representational. Today a number of the participating artists will be in the gallery to discuss their work, and you are welcome to stop by and chat with them.
For the most part consisting of works by the gallery's regular exhibitors, with a few newcomers thrown in for further confusion, this collection comes off more like a flea market than a professional art show. Still, there are a few fine pieces here. The print selections are the most original -- not surprisingly, since Haslem Gallery has for many years specialized in prints of all kinds. From the abstract lithographs of Bob Nugent to Billy Morrow Jackson's beautifully crafted reduction block print "Siti Rising," if you like prints and you're patient, you'll likely find a good one here.
Most of the other pieces consist of works on paper in watercolor and graphite. There are, for example, two big naive animal paintings by Jennine Hough, and a rather nicely done -- if academic -- pencil still life by Dorothy Yanik. The remainder is pretty much up for grabs.
David Frye, at the Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through today.
Paul Suttman, Still Life Sculpture, at Franz Bader Gallery, 1500 K St. NW, through Jan. 19.
Turning Over a New Leaf, at Jane Haslem Gallery, 2025 Hillyer Pl. NW, through tonight.