In case you haven't already noticed, a number of Washington area galleries are mounting shows of women artists exclusively, in solidarity with the 1991 conference of the National Women's Caucus for the Arts, being held here this month. There are several local shows that focus on art for art's sake. Among these is "Ring of Fire: Asian American Women Artists Now," a compelling and thoughtful overview of work by Washington area artists at the Studio Gallery, curated by Ai-Wen Wu Kratz. Herein are some lyrical expressions from the soul: haunting ink-on-rice-paper paintings by Soo Kim Gordon, graceful brush works by Hiro, a vigorous acrylic on canvas by Chieko Mishima-Colliou, and restrained but powerful sculptures in wood and clay by Slaithung Schmutzhart and by one of our most celebrated local figures, Yuriko Yamaguchi.
Among the challenging works are photographs by Paula Endo and Annie Adjchavanich. While they are made in the most approved mainstream postmodern manner, even these manipulated black-and-white portraits and series of self-portraits with text are remarkably contemplative and personal. All of the work, from the very good to the not-so-good, resonates with a quiet introspection. You get a glimpse of private spirit here.
Not all of the work is figurative. There is, for example, Hae Sook Cho's teasing mixed-media composition "Festival," which looks a bit like a 3-D Tom Downing painting. But most of it is either representational, such as the very traditional ink studies and screen painting of Helene Sze McCarthy, or strongly alludes to organic form. Yamaguchi is a past master at this, and her enigmatic painted-wood wall pieces have always been concerned with the processes of life -- procreation, death and man's relationship to the natural world.
Schmutzhart's "Earth Series" also provokes such contemplations, although the pieces intentionally are set on a fence squarely between the collectible-decorative object and the evocative composition. This artist replicates gourds or potatoes in clay, fired or painted in various ways. These are then mounted in rows in wood and plexiglass wall cases. The effect is almost museological on the one hand, and provocatively contemporary on the other.
This is an exceptionally fine show. It murmurs quietly, but powerfully, that these women are artists first, and are concerned with making objects of beauty and depth. It makes the important point that not all contemporary women artists are using their talents as artisans and designers to be proselytes of a popular public agenda, an impression one might get from overexposure to most mainstream, high-profile "artstars." And they are no less women, or indeed feminists, for it. Deborah Kahn at Watkins
At American University's Watkins Gallery, assistant professor of painting and drawing Deborah Kahn also provides an introspective and aesthetically oriented show. Her carefully organized and highly detailed abstracts combine a kind of Diebenkorn-like fracturing of landscape (or "mindscape," as the case may be) with a sensitive and inventive use of color and composition.
Composed of only seven works, most of them large, it leaves the viewer hungry for more. Kahn continually explores a format she has come to be comfortable with, and it's a measure of her inventiveness that you don't grow tired of it. Implied "horizons," subtle bands of pale grays, pinks or blues, are bisected by sweeping circles, triangles and rough rectangles. These geometric forms, often more-or-less solid areas of bold color, are further divided into fields of delicate detail. There are mosaics of brushed squiggles, dashes and dots, checkerboards and what appear to be hints of trees, grass and other natural forms.
Kahn seems determined to be counted as one of those ever-rarer of contemporary painters: a colorist. She does delightful things with pallid hues against raw, or on canvas treated with rabbit skin glue. It's a technique that both Picasso and Matisse were quite fond of, but one that requires an almost perfect instinct for the push and pull of certain tints. Kahn's abilities in this area are perhaps best illustrated in one of her most obvious landscapes, "Where the Ocean Meets the Shore."
In another of her strongest works here, "Mother and Child," the artist also demonstrates an ability to enclose areas of vivid color without making them seem flat or purely decorative. In this painting she juxtaposes vibrant blue with metallic copper, and makes of it deep space. These paintings are carefully craft ed expressions of pure delight with the medium. They are about process and observation, pictorial space and design.
Jill Henriod at Spectrum Gallery
If you will allow yourself to see past the often trite subjects of Jill Henriod's monotypes, a number of which are on display at the Spectrum Gallery, you'll see some ingenious graphic and color work.
This artist depicts social scenes such as weddings, high-society parties and so forth. Many of the titles, such as that of a print of a bride and groom, "From This Day Forward," smack of sappy Hallmark Cards. There are lots of little girls in cute pink and white lacy dresses, and all the men appear to have bought their suits at Brooks Brothers.
However, Henriod is an exceptionally fine draftsman and printmaker, and she, like Kahn, does some simply delicious things with color. She can, for example, slap a neon green smack up against a prurient purple and get away with it. She is also capable of suggesting a great deal of substance with a couple of hasty brushes of ink.
To augment these remarkable abilities, Henriod is a fine and unpredictable composer of images and designer of patterns. Figures often occupy strange, startling corners of her pictures, catching the viewer's attention almost against his will. It's a rare trick to attract a passerby into the gallery with prints of such lame subjects.
Now, if someone would only prevail upon Henriod to concentrate on some less vapid topics, this is an artist who could go a long way. She certainly has the talent for much bigger and better things.
Ring of Fire: Asian American Women Artists Now, at the Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through Feb. 23.
Deborah Kahn, at American University's Watkins Gallery, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, through March 7.
Bold Impressions: Recent Monotypes by Jill Henriod, at the Spectrum Gallery, 1132 29th St. NW, through Feb. 24.