The righteous closed the Shepherd Park strip club on upper Georgia Avenue NW in 1987. United in propriety, they rose against the lust purveyed there every night -- the women dancing naked, the drunks who paid to watch -- and against the degradation that seeped out of that sordid bar to foul their leafy streets. Fred Folsom, though his faith is fierce, did not join their crusade.
In 1997, the Park is wholly his. Gone for a decade, it throbs on in his art.
His oils and his drawings are now at the Artists' Museum, 406 Seventh St. NW, and most depict the strip club as he well remembers it -- the sweating girls, the raucousness, the lowlife clientele. Folsom is a realist. The Shepherd Park he paints -- except that it's been sanctified -- is precisely as it was.
There are smudges on the bottles and junkies in the john. Males of the coarsest kind stoned on this or that -- bikers, dopers, journalists -- are still ogling the dancers. The ashtrays are as full, the floors look just as sticky as they ever were, but the atmosphere has changed. Sweetness scents the air. An aura of redemption illuminates the figures. Folsom paints the Park -- its pubic hair, its lushes -- with an all-forgiving Christian love.
He says, "If Jesus got off the bus at at Fenton Street, He wouldn't go to St. Luke's, He'd head for the Shepherd Park. He came and died for sinners, and the Park is his home ground."
It's as if He's just been there; his presence, though not seen, is everywhere implied.
Usually, in strip clubs, if you look into the faces, what you mostly notice is deadness in the eyes. You see it in the stripper's look of coldness on patrol, and also in the way her watchers seem intent not only on her nakedness but on some inward bruise. The mood is different in this art.
The light that bathes the dancers heals, and the faces of the drinkers aren't the faces of the damned. Folsom's faces glow.
The biker in the wheelchair in Folsom's "Naked Lunch," ponytailed, legless, tattooed, reaches from the canvas to offer you a drink with sudden generosity, as if his rage and bitterness had just been dissolved. The lit-up journalists nearby (the late sportscaster Glenn Brenner, Channel 9's Gordon Peterson, The Washington Post's Hank Burchard and Henry Allen) are not just guffawing in smutty camaraderie. Folsom will not let you hate the figures he portrays. The one paying for his beer in Folsom's "Naked Lunch" has a clearly cloven hoof, but his face is wreathed in gratitude. He's felt the rapture too.
Present in these paintings, sharpening their sweetness, is a humming undertone of quiet criminality. Some sort of heavy dealing (gun business, or dope business, you don't want to know) is going on in whispers back there by the bar. Folsom's figures are not angels, those neon Blatz signs are not halos. The Park is not quite Heaven. These are sinners, after all.
Folsom is an artist, as well as a moralist, who urges us to look, carefully and kindly, at aspects of the world from which we tend to turn away -- at the overladen shopping carts dragged about by street people who wear too many overcoats, at the bruises on the faces of broke and beat-up losers (one is a self-portrait).
But not losers in general. Folsom's work collapses if the people he portrays are not perceived at once as distinct individuals. That's why he's put Glenn Brenner in, and other guys you sort of know, Pascal and Che Guevara, the young Rembrandt, Walter Hopps, the curator -- and, hey, there's Davy Crockett. Folsom's bums are as specific. The one portrayed most often in this 80-picture show is no generic wino. His name was Norman Lane.
They called Norman Lane the Mayor of Silver Spring. It was a joke, and it wasn't. He died in 1987, just off Georgia Avenue, in the back of an abandoned taxicab. Lane had worked the same few dumpsters and sported the same hard hat for a quarter of a century. After Folsom lobbied the city, and paid for the casting, his bronze bust of the Mayor was erected near the alley where he died.
It's not life everlasting, but one's statue in one's neighborhood is a form of immortality, which is among the reasons Folsom makes this sort of art.
Protestants prefer white-clapboard plainness, but Folsom understands effigies and martyrdoms and the swirls of the baroque. His religion is Roman Catholicism. He also believes in the history of art.
Born and raised in Washington, and pretty much self-trained here, Folsom, 52, is an artist of a distinctly Washingtonian sort. In style, if not subject, he's insistently conservative. His art is apostolic, his allegiance is to precedent. He belongs -- with Joseph Shannon, Manon Cleary, Joe White and a few others, all diligent depicters -- to what one might call our National Gallery School.
That's where he learned his skills -- by scrutinizing the paintings on the walls of the West Building. More than any art school, the Manets and the Rembrandts there confirmed his conviction that the nude can express anything, and taught him how to paint.
In 1997 -- with the art schools and the magazines promoting video, media art and room-size installations -- Folsom's sort of painting suggests defiant loneliness. Getting the shadows right, gauging the foreshortening and anatomy, and making unclothed bodies, the foaminess of beer foam and the matte of sweat-soaked denim visually convincing is now a thankless task.
Nonetheless he tries, and keeps on trying. It's not progression that one thinks about when looking at his art. "Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go Go Club)," which he first showed 10 years ago, is still as strong as anything he's done. That 97-figure piece, once again on view, is the anchor of this show.
Christians strive to move through life imitating Jesus. Folsom, as a painter, has set out on another steep and narrow path. One may wish that he'd rely a little less on photographs, and peer a bit more closely at the details of foliage, but his effort is impressive, as is his loyal perseverance. He may never be a saint, or a Titian either, but he strives to keep the faith. On Friday at 7 p.m., "Go Go Girls Don't Cry," Jeffrey H. Krulik's documentary on the painter, will receive its premiere at the Artists' Museum. Folsom will be present to take questions. His exhibition closes Sept. 27. CAPTION: Fred Folsom with his "Last Call": The Washington artist imbues the Shepherd Park strip club with an aura of redemption. CAPTION: Folsom's "Mayor of Silver Spring" portrays Norman Lane, a frequent subject.