When Floyd Coleman stepped down as chairman of Howard University's art department at the end of 1998, he relished the prospect of finally having time to produce a cohesive body of paintings. But getting back in the groove proved difficult. After 11 years as an administrator, the studio seemed alien and he felt rusty.
"Painting the first two or three works was tough," Coleman says. "They took almost a month and I didn't feel comfortable. But I knew it would take some time to get back. As chairman I'd kept working, but very little. I'd only paint two or three pieces a year because there was so much else to do."
After struggling through most of last summer, Coleman found his stride in August, creating the memorable group of abstracted figures that are currently on display at Parish Gallery. The mixed-media paintings, many of them heads or portraits, are the first figurative work Coleman has done since the mid-1970s, when he began painting in a purely abstract style inspired by African textiles and jazz.
Stylistically, the new paintings are a lively synthesis of African and African-American influences along with elements of contemporary abstraction. In almost every picture, the faces and figures emerge from or are incorporated into a loose grid pattern, that staple of the abstract visual vocabulary. Coleman's strokes, whether with brush, marker, pencil or pen, have the free-flowing, improvisational feel of a jazz solo. The eyes of his figures seem to follow the visitor around the room, an effect perfected by African mask-makers.
Many of the paintings, such as "DC Man I," are black-and-white and elegantly austere, calling to mind Japanese calligraphy. Where Coleman uses color it's often just a few touches of green and blue that accent facial features or outline a figure.
Since his first exhibition at a commercial gallery in 1963, Coleman has had 119 solo exhibitions and been in many group shows. His works can be found in a number of museums, including Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Oakland Museum in California.
Although he no longer heads the department, Coleman, 62, is still a professor of art at Howard and seems to have found a good balance between teaching and painting.
"It feels really good in the studio now," he says. "I think I'll stay with figuration for a while. There are still a lot of issues in it that I want to explore, and I have no interest in academic abstract painting."
Burkett's Subtle, Powerful Change
Christopher Burkett and his wife, Ruth, were heading home to Oregon in 1989, on the last leg of an exhausting, 15,000-mile car trip that had taken them all over the United States.
The couple had been searching out the scenes of pristine nature that Christopher captures in lyrical photographs suffused with a spark of divinity. Ruth was driving while her husband slept. Then she saw the apple tree.
"We were 14 miles from home," she recalls. "Christopher had kind of relinquished. But the apples were just glowing in the sun. So I woke him up, turned around in a horse pasture and back we went. He made a couple shots and then we went home.
But he wasn't satisfied with those. So the next morning he went back as the sun was coming up."
The photo that resulted, "Wild Apple Tree and Fog, Oregon," can be seen in Burkett's fine show at Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Most of the prints in the exhibition are new, but there are a few older works, such as the apple tree, which serve to highlight a significant change that occurred in Burkett's work toward the end of the 1980s.
Prior to that, his photographs have a rugged, Western feel, stemming from the subjects: rock faces, mountains and canyons. If Ansel Adams had shot in color, this is what the pictures would look like.
But as the '90s dawned, Burkett began photographing far more delicate subjects in a less overt manner. The results are subtle and lyrical images that are even more evocative, such as "Pink and White Dogwoods, Kentucky, 1991." In that picture, a host of dogwoods are just breaking into blossom in a wood lot. Two trees, one with bright white blossoms, the other vivid pink, occupy the center of the photo, their thin branches intertwined in a soaring arboreal ballet. Their dance is framed by the thick, straight trunks of the hardwoods behind them and set off by a deep backdrop of blossoms that blend to form a softer shade of pink.
Like all of Burkett's photos, it catches in meticulous detail the magical convergence of light, form and color that only nature commands. The pictures are a tribute to his unflagging energy, keen eye and absolutely brilliant ability as a color printer.
A fuller survey of Burkett's work can be seen in his recently published book, appropriately titled "Intimations of Paradise."
Floyd Coleman, at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-944-2310, through Nov. 16.
Christopher Burkett, at Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m., 202-328-0955, through Nov. 27.
CAPTION: Two of Floyd Coleman's mixed-media paintings, above and below, at Parish Gallery. The artist's exhibition displays an improvisational style akin to a jazz solo.
CAPTION: "Wild Red Maple and Fog," one of Christopher Burkett's photos at Kathleen Ewing Gallery.