Watercolor is a deceptively accessible art form. Because the materials--pigments, paper, a brush and water--are relatively inexpensive, millions of people, from schoolchildren to professional artists, have tried doing it.
Few can claim mastery of the medium. Donald Holden is one of them.
A selection of Holden's small, beguiling paintings is on display at the Susan Conway Gallery. They were chosen from a recent retrospective of his work at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The paintings highlight his consummate skill as a watercolorist, as well as his quietly spiritual artistic vision.
What makes Holden an extraordinary watercolorist is his way with light. Broken down to its most basic elements, watercolor painting is about controlling light, in the form of a sheet of snowy-white paper, by applying pigment thinned with water. It sounds easy but is surprisingly difficult to do well.
Many watercolorists become technically proficient at a few lighting effects and use them repeatedly; witness the photo-realistic depictions of sun-splashed old barns adorned with fading Mail Pouch chewing tobacco advertisements so common at art fairs from Key West to Ketchikan. That kind of painting is a direct descendant of the watercolor landscape genre that has thrived, particularly in England, since the 18th century.
Holden also paints landscapes. In style, color and substance, however, they are more akin to the watercolors produced by such modern masters as Cezanne or Paul Klee. In almost every painting, Holden demonstrates his command of light, from full sun to half light to night.
Getting that kind of tonal range and harmony in such small paintings--most measure about 7 by 10 inches--is remarkable, and has helped secure a place for Holden's works in major American and English museums, including the National Gallery of Art and the British Museum. He has also written 19 books on how to paint and draw.
While his technical virtuosity is impressive, Holden's success is equally due to his original vision. A subtle power emanates from his pictures. They glow with an internal light that can make the sudden flare of a pine tree being engulfed by a forest fire seem like a candle's flame. Each painting depicts a world that looks, from a distance, like ours. Titles such as "Dusk at Mendocino," and the "Yellowstone Fire" series, reinforce that connection.
But a painting like "Wooded Island," from 1993, isn't really of this world. The island shimmering in the middle of a lake amid an impossibly pink, misty dawn is abstract and amorphous. The same holds true for the water and the distant shore. The scene is painted in shades of purple, blue and pink that aren't found in nature. Yet these dissonant elements come together to evoke nature at its purest.
The picture's mesmerizing power derives from the lovely gradations of color and light that seem to grow organically from each fiber of the thick watercolor paper. There isn't a brush stroke to be seen. It's more like a fuzzy photograph from some strange, parallel world, a place as safe and peaceful as a wooded island in a mirror-calm lake. Making representation, abstraction, light and color coalesce into a separate and meaningful reality is the hallmark of a master watercolorist, which Holden is.
David FeBland at Fraser Gallery
There's a unique energy to New York City, a relentlessly pounding pulse that beats eternally through its sewers, subways, sidewalks and skyscrapers. It's what makes some people love the city and others hate it. That pulse and those emotions drive David FeBland's brash, bizarre and beautifully painted oils of life in the Big Apple that are being shown at the Fraser Gallery.
The pictures are rather surreal scenes that document New York in a brushy style and a kind of freshly scrubbed light that makes the city's mad marvels and marvelous madness shine like the Chrysler Building on a sunny day.
Nothing in these cityscapes is quite what it seems. The main characters in "Play the Game," an elongated oil-on-canvas, are dog trainers dressed in spiffy suits and running in a circle with their purebred charges as if it were the opening of the Westminster Kennel Club show. FeBland's depiction of the trainers' odd, forward lean and high-kneed run is dead on.
But this parade is taking place in some empty lot near the waterfront. A car is burning in the background. A mugging is taking place next to the fire. That juxtaposition of chaos and supercilious civility makes the painting a fine metaphor for life in New York.
Marilyn Horrom at Parish Gallery
Marilyn Horrom's paintings of dresses floating in space as if they were adorning invisible women were dark, melancholic and severe at her previous exhibition here in 1996. The garments were white against black backgrounds, creating a somber, slightly ominous mood.
The dresses are a central feature of Horrom's latest show at the Parish Gallery, but her new paintings are enlivened by some significant changes. The addition of bright colors, applied economically in loose, squiggly strokes over the dark backgrounds, has the dual effect of creating both a better-defined pictorial space and a broader emotional range. In "Homage to Degas: Three Muses," a few patches of red and a handful of blue and yellow lines turn the black field into a theater humming with expectant energy at the beginning of a ballet.
Another change is the inclusion of clothed figures, including males, in some paintings. While Horrom doesn't depict the figures' faces, their clothes and body language convey a sense of the person. There are also a couple of lovely small charcoal drawings in the show. "Ballerine," another dress that implies the figure, is particularly well done.
Donald Holden, at Susan Conway Gallery, 1214 30th St. NW, through Oct. 23. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 202-333-6343.
David FeBland, at Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, through Wednesday. Tuesday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. 202-298-6450.
Marilyn Horrom, at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, through Tuesday. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. 202-944-2310.