KEITH Street doesn't so much paint as unpaint.
The 28-year-old artist, a dozen of whose murky and out-of-focus self-portraits are now on display at the University of the District of Columbia, deliberately blurs his own image as he draws, continually wiping away and redrawing hisface on a dark ground until he arrives at a smoky likeness that pleases him. The colors he favors are those of the black nationalist flag: red, green and black.
It's a small but striking show, and one that marks the inauguration of UDC's new exhibition space, a former photographic studio with real track lighting that replaces the poorly lit auditorium lobby, which for 10 years served as the school's pro tem art gallery.
The visual effect in the new and improved hall is arresting, as you move back and forth in front of the pictures trying to find the distance at which the figures resolve out of the haze. They simultaneously seem to emerge and retreat from a fog that obscures even as it reveals tantalizing universal truths.
"I start with my own face," says Street, a Maryland artist who recently relocated to Massachusetts, "because that's the story I know best, but these pictures are not me. They make a statement about the fact that the image and accomplishments of the black people have historically been obscured."
In his moodily painted Everymen -- ranging from the nearly abstract meteorite of "Red Head in White Wrap" to the more distinct tarnished-copper features of "Modern Antique" -- Street's often punning titles tell a tale of racial pride and prejudice, and a lack of clarity that affects even the way his own people see themselves. "Red Black in Green," for instance, refers to a common term for an African American whose skin is relatively light. A sickly olive hue -- what Street calls an "alien green mist" -- cloaks the figure in an allusion to his occasional feelings of cultural estrangement.
"Afro-American, Black, Colored, Nubian, Negro," says Street, ticking off some of the many names he has heard used to describe his brothers and sisters, while standing before a painting called "Focus, Please Focus." "We need to concentrate on who we are and not what we call ourselves. It's not just about black people either. The issue of identity cuts across the color spectrum."
"NEW LIGHT: Paintings by Keith Phillip Street." Through Oct. 29 in UDC's new Gallery 42, 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW (Metro: Van Ness/UDC), located in the rear of Building 42 on the A (or quad) level. Open noon to 6 Mondays and Wednesdays or by appointment. Call 202/274-5781.