James A. Porter was something of a Renaissance man -- an artist, scholar, connoisseur and patron of the arts. As a professor at Howard University, he wrote "Modern Negro Art," the first comprehensive history of African American art. Through 43 years of teaching painting, drawing and art history, he influenced generations of artists and scholars, including such luminaries as the University of Maryland's David Driskell and Tritobia Benjamin of Howard.
Given the importance of Porter's academic accomplishments, it is understandable that his artistic talent and passion for collecting art have sometimes been overlooked in the years since his death in 1970 at age 65. The Howard University Gallery of Art made a significant contribution to correcting that oversight a few years back with a retrospective of his works. Now Parish Gallery has taken matters a step further with its latest show, a rich and rewarding compendium titled "James A. Porter -- Artist and Collector."
Porter was outstanding at both endeavors. But his paintings are what make the exhibition memorable. He was a gifted figurative painter whose canvases reflect his knowledge of art history. "He used the visual vocabulary of different art movements in his work," says Floyd Coleman, chairman of Howard's art department. "His style was eclectic, but it was a very nice eclecticism."
Porter's painting skill is particularly evident in two fine oil-on-canvas portraits from his younger days. "Lydia" is a head-and-shoulders depiction of a young African American woman with a fiercely proud gaze, while "Boy Reading" shows a young man sitting at a table, resting his head in his right hand, completely absorbed in a book. Constance Porter Uzelac, Porter's daughter, recalls her parents saying that the subject of the portrait was the poet Langston Hughes, although she has never found documentary evidence to support that claim.
Along with portraits, Porter painted landscapes and still lifes inspired by his travels to Africa, South America, Europe and the Caribbean. One of the best examples of such works in the exhibition is "Fish Vendors at Bar Beach, Lagos," a colorful, expressionistic composition showing Nigerian women hawking their wares.
On the other side of the gallery, paintings, etchings, woodcuts and drawings from the Porter collection are on display, including works by such internationally known artists as Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Dempsey, Charles Smith, Hughie Lee-Smith and Prefete Duffaut, whose busy, radiant oil-on-masonite painting "Imaginary City" is a marvelous example of Haitian art.
Like his artwork, Porter's collecting reflects his eclectic, erudite taste. He seems to have acquired works unsystematically, buying works on paper to help further the career of a young black artist or acquiring a painting by a Congolese artist because it caught his eye on one of his journeys to Africa. Like many artists, he may have traded works with his colleagues. Over the years, the Porter family has donated a number of significant works to Howard University's permanent collection.
Seeing Porter's paintings and works on paper mesh so easily with works by such people as Catlett and Petion Savain puts his achievements as an artist into proper perspective. The great African American artists were not just people he studied and wrote about, they were also his peers and friends. Eklektikos Gallery
Parish Gallery's neighbors in Georgetown's Canal Square complex have a lively mix of exhibits, and none is more ambitious than Eklektikos Gallery's "NY2DC, Object and Photo (Process and the Image)" show, in which some 78 pieces of art by 30 artists from the Ridge Gallery in Manhattan's East Village have been shoehorned into one room. The salon-style exhibition makes the gallery look like a basement family room after a raucous teenage party. Broken records left by a performance artist litter part of the floor and the artworks jostle one another for space on the walls.
Refreshing as that approach is, inspection of the individual works leads to disappointment. While there are a few interesting and original ideas, such as Peter Emerick's floor sculpture, much of the art is derivative. Alex de Fluvia's "Des-Coushrusccio II," for example, calls to mind early 1960s works by Germany's Gerhard Richter. Just about every other post-war style can be found somewhere in the cacophony. Pavle at Contemporary
The Museum of Contemporary Art has been steadily remodeling its exhibition space and staging a series of interesting shows by international artists. By expanding the wall space and rearranging the interior furnishings, the space has become more attractive and more flexible, to the art's advantage. The current exhibit of large oil paintings by Ivan Pavle, a Slovak artist who has built a modest reputation in Western Europe, is a colorful melange of expressionist and figurative elements. Pavle spent three months in 1996 on a fellowship in New York and Washington, a trip that has added an airy, architectural element to his style. Charcoal Nudes at Fraser
Fraser Gallery is showing charcoal drawings of nudes by F. Lennox Campello. The subjects are mostly women Campello found on X-rated Web sites. He then arranged to meet and draw them. The drawings are very dark and the artist's abundant use of shadow effects can be heavy-handed and irritating. But in a few of the works he manages to find a delicate balance between the black charcoal and cream-colored paper resulting in a grainy, film-noir effect, making his subjects, traffickers in mass-consumption prurience, seem tough but vulnerable, like a flowering plant in a sexual wasteland. James A. Porter, at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-944-2310, through Jan. 3. NY2DC, at Eklektikos Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-342-1809, through Jan. 15. F. Lennox Campello, at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-298-6450, through Jan. 15.
Ivan Pavle, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 1054 31st St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m., 202-342-6230, through December. CAPTION: James Porter's "Boy Reading" at Parish is said to be a portrait of the poet Langston Hughes. CAPTION: Works by New York artists cram the walls of Eklektikos in Georgetown's Canal Square in a show called "NY2DC, Object and Photo (Process and the Image)."