At Osuna Gallery, a new exhibit of works by American painter Jean Meisel reaffirms the seemingly indomitable spirit of artists dedicated to nonobjective art. This modernist tradition has a pedigree dating back to the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) and its adherents are as numerous as ever. This says something about the genre's almost endless possibilities as an expressive art form, as well as its almost universal aesthetic appeal.
Meisel is a disciplined and competent painter with considerable color sense. Her canvases sing with the love of painting and of process. And in most of these recent works, she displays an ability to achieve the kind of intriguing, feathery surface textures and luminous hues one associates with the work of Rothko or veteran modernist Jacob Kainen. Not one of her color areas is pure. All are to a greater or lesser extent blendings of many tones which, even from relatively close up, seem to shift and mutate before your eyes.
This artist isn't timid about juxtaposing chancy opposing colors. But she gets her most satisfactory effects by alternating more muted tones -- say, deep earth greens with rich maroons. She does this to considerable effect in works such as the lovely "Foligno I." In other pieces, such as "Montefalco," which is perhaps the best in the show, Meisel contrasts dense blocks of fairly heavy pigment with light "windows" of pale cream and blue. With "Montefalco" she allows faint blue chalk lines to bleed through the paint, adding yet another element of depth and translucence.
There is considerable irony in the fact that now that the mindless convulsions of '80s postmodernism have subsided, nonobjective painting has reemerged as a viable course of artistic exploration. This was the genre vilified above all others by postmodern pundits as too "exclusive" and "inaccessible" for the democratic demands of contemporary society. Now more and more artists such as Meisel are returning to the purely aesthetic challenge of painting for painting's sake; the formal elements of pattern, composition, technique. They are coming back to this mode of expression because it takes a great deal of skill and imagination to make something out of nothing -- nothing, that is, but the bare essentials: paint and surface.
Most of Meisel's works in this show are designed along a rather rigid format: a series of offset blocks of color, interposed with stripes and solid columns, flatly painted. But there is nothing rigid about her execution. With one or two pieces, the artist gets a bit too formalistic as well as too formulaic -- the almost interior-designish planes in "Recanati I & II" suffer from this. But for the most part, Maisel's exhibit excels. Maril at Susan Conway Carroll
Herman Maril, the late University of Maryland professor of fine art, was that rare artists who painted because he couldn't help himself. The works in a retrospective at the Susan Conway Carroll Gallery, both good and bad, all project a kind of innocent playfulness -- plain revelry in the laying of brush to paper or canvas.
There is nothing pretentious or difficult about Maril's landscapes and his modernistic but restrained still lifes. Given the span of the artist's years (1908-1986), it isn't surprising that many of these works, the majority of which appear to have been painted in and around Cape Cod, show the unmistakable influence of artists who came to prominence in the 1930s and '40s, such as Milton Avery and Arthur Dove. There is the same rather stylized but enthusiastic reduction of form to simple color areas; the telltale division of the pictures into flat planes executed with gestural washes in subtle gray, blue and earth tones.
While several of the oil and acrylic canvases are a bit too rigidly conceived, giving them the unfortunate appearance of the decorative quickies one sometimes sees in furniture store windows, most of the smaller acrylics-on-paper and watercolors are elegant and original. The lovely, brisk wash drawing "Hanging Plant" is one of these. This work, "Western Landscape" and "Pathway to Water" all have an almost Oriental feel: the brief, sure strokes of the brush, the delicacy of color, the economy of line and mass. Clearly, Maril felt no particular ambition to produce huge, intimidating images or to slay his audience with visual histrionics -- both of which, however, he was manifestly capable of.
Viewed in the context of his colleagues' work -- Avery's, for instance -- Maril's paintings come off as rather academic. But this element acts in their favor. There is an endearing quaintness about them, an intimacy that obtains by virtue of the artist's obvious confidence that you will enjoy the scenes he felt compelled to commit to paper just as much as he did. It's the art of sharing a special view. Whimsy and romanticism are implicit in Maril's imagery and, for the most part, it's a happy event that they are. Jean Meisel: Paintings, at Osuna Gallery, 1919 Q St. NW, through Feb. 5.
Herman Maril: A Celebration, at Susan Conway Carroll Gallery, 1058 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, through Feb. 9.