To judge by the exhibit "The Figure in the Landscape" at Baumgartner Galleries, Washington area artist Greg Hannan is one heck of a curator, with a good eye for fine work.
However, he should in the future be discouraged from writing his own catalogue essay. The one accompanying this show is more likely to befuddle its viewers than enlighten them, so dense is it with terms such as "noumenal capacity" (a Kantian concept) and the truly formidable "detritic tableau of abstracted intent" (no English translation).
This otherwise excellent exhibition consists of paintings and sculptures by eight artists, the majority of them from New York galleries. It seeks to present different contemporary approaches to the treatment of the figure within the context of landscape. Some are figurative, some surrealistic, some expressionistic and some purely abstract. Washington gallery-goers may be unfamiliar with Archie Rand, John Walker, David Wojnarowicz or Martin Wong, but William Christenberry, Joan Snyder, Gary Stephan and David Krueger have all had considerable exposure here. All take very different approaches to Hannan's chosen theme.
But as the pictures were not commissioned for the show, one has to be cautious in asserting that all of them conform to the curator's cryptically outlined intentions. Perhaps the finest work here is an abstract: Snyder's lovely "Beanfield/Brooklyn." This stunning composition is executed in heavy pigment and mixed media on raw canvas. An arrangement of rough squares surrounding a "field" of varicolored texture, the picture creates real dynamism with pure design. Stephan's slickly rendered simple black ovoid against what looks like an evening sky is also an impressive piece.
Christenberry checks in with one of his haunting little sculptures composed of gourds hung from thorns, recalling the roadside gourd birdhouses of his native Alabama. Krueger also turns in a fine recent painting, "Walking through the mud as bugs and stars," a surprise in that it's far more colorful and focused than the almost monochromatic, Anselm Kiefer-like works he was doing five years ago.
The only disappointing piece here is Wong's poorly painted portrait of two firemen kissing under a wall of burned-out brick buildings. While it's true that in the strictest sense it conforms to Hannan's stated criteria, one can't help but wonder why it was considered at all.
Zhdanov at Rogers
With perestroika and glasnost, an increasing number of Soviet artists have been showing their work in the United States. Soviet art was shown before these political events, thanks to the often surreptitious efforts of scholars such as Norton Dodge, but the floodgates appear to have opened. Now the Alla Rogers Gallery presents the recent work of Aleksandr Zhdanov.
Not surprisingly, much of what was formerly termed "unofficial" art by Vadim Kosmachev, Alexander Zlotnick and Alexander Makhov, Boris Landa, Anton Solumukha and Vladimir Nemukhin and many others was starkly critical of the Soviet government. A lot of it was also very good, conceptually complex and well crafted, often with whimsical references to Russian myths and fairy tales. Zhdanov is critical too, but this is apparent only in the titles of his paintings.
Since leaving the Soviet Union three years ago, this abstract expressionist painter has received considerable media attention. His story of harassment and brutality by the KGB has been received with sympathy, and his commitment to freedom of artistic expression has been applauded. When someone has suffered so much for his art, it makes it terribly hard to say that the art he has suffered for is mediocre. Judging by the two dozen or so paintings in this show, Zhdanov has gone through many changes in style over the past several years and has not yet made up his mind whether to continue on as a realist-expressionist, or go completely abstract. For the moment, pure abstraction appears to have won out.
Davenport at de Andino
Rebecca Davenport has been among the most respected members of the Washington art community for many years. But with her new one-woman exhibit at de Andino Fine Arts, this confirmed realist turns her back on the large-format paintings of farmyards and animals, interiors and figures that once dominated her work.
"Small Formats" is a collection of recent studies of fruits and vegetables, all, as the title of the show implies, very small. Some are polished, some gestural or sketchy. The latter are the best. With one or two exceptions, Davenport's more refined renditions of sweet potatoes, pomegranates, mushrooms, turnips and other truck recall almost too strongly the detailed still lifes of Albrecht Durer. And several are so meticulously painted that they become as static as place mat decorations.
There is an exception, however. A largish study of a head of broccoli, floating against a hastily painted background of mauve-brown on a pencil-graphed panel, is, despite its subject, riveting. But the artist's freely limned oil and gouache-on-paper images are the most compelling here. They reveal in their evident quickness of execution Davenport's mastery of form, as well as her ability to convey volume and texture with a few perfectly placed brush strokes.
The Figure in the Landscape, at Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW, through Feb. 9.
Aleksander Zhdanov, at the Alla Rogers Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, through March 2.
Rebecca Davenport: Small Formats, at de Andino Fine Arts, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, through Feb. 23.