Broken down into its visual components, David Shapiro's art doesn't amount to much. A handful of basic shapes--circles, half-circles, screenlike grids, checkerboards and tangles of squiggly lines--appear over and over again in his paintings and works on paper. His preferred colors are black, gray and an array of earth tones. He uses acrylic paint.
But when Shapiro combines these simple elements in a painting or print, something unusual happens: They far exceed the sum of their parts. The shapes hum with a paradoxical energy, alternately attracting and repelling one another like magnets. That tension brings the colors to life, highlighting the wealth of surface and sub-surface textures that Shapiro weaves together in his subtle, strange, mesmerizing works.
Some of Shapiro's recent creations, on display at Numark Gallery, are so richly textured that they look like tapestries made by stitching together panels of flannel, felt, tissue and wall-to-wall carpet. In a monoprint such as "Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer," the panels are connected horizontally and each bears a different shape. But the pictures aren't meant to be read from left to right, like a sentence. The shapes, such as a glowing black circle, pull the viewer right into the middle of the panels and give him two options for getting out. Both lead through surprisingly deep thickets of imagery.
If that sounds weird, it's because it is. There are times when it's tough to look at Shapiro's sequences of shapes and not think of an optometrist endlessly testing the world for astigmatism.
But what saves some of the pictures from being eye chart knockoffs is their spiritual resonance. The good ones, and there are a bunch of them in Numark's show, have a meditative, Zenlike hum, the visual equivalent of a mantra. They pack an evocative punch that spans art history from hieroglyphics and Asian calligraphy to the Brice Marden paintings that were shown at the Hirshhorn Museum last year.
Shapiro's ability to turn relatively simple shapes, materials and ideas into artworks rich in physical, intellectual and spiritual allusions has put his works in some of the country's foremost museums of contemporary art. At age 55, he's still mining more from less in ways mysterious and mystical.
Joe Shannon at Gallery K
Where David Shapiro evokes art history, Joe Shannon paints himself into it. Literally.
Shannon's face and figure, down to the pores, can be found in many of his paintings on display at Gallery K. Mixed in with the varying visions of Joeness are some landscapes, portraits and full-frontal female nudes.
The level of pictorial skill is undeniably impressive. Whether the medium is oil paint, charcoal, pen-and-ink, or mortar on hardboard, Shannon is a virtuoso, possessing the kind of finely honed technique that often gets short shrift in the postmodern art world. He's a particularly gifted oil painter.
But he's also a "take it or leave it" kind of artist. Contrary to prevailing art world fashion, his style is unabashedly representational. But like many young artists these days, his main subject is, in essence, himself and his world. With apologies to Jimi Hendrix, it could accurately be called "The Joe Shannon Experience." If you find Shannon's worldview and life interesting, which he clearly does, the paintings can be fascinating. If not, they can seem loud, bizarre and tediously self-centered.
Personally, I get a kick out of Shannon's ability, energy, intellectual ambition, fearlessness and outright strangeness. I also understand why some people just can't stand his work.
The mainstays of Shannon's existence are painting, writing, teaching, hunting and fishing. He does them all with gusto and, at age 66, shows no signs of slowing down. Judging from the nude self-portrait he did in charcoal on his birthday last March, he's in better physical shape than most artists half his age.
Shannon is also fascinated by art history and Greek mythology and uses them as sources of inspiration for his bold, vibrantly colorful paintings. He often does this by mimicking the styles and compositions of masters such as Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso.
That's something a few million other artists have done over the years. But when Shannon does it there's a twist. He's in the picture, part of the scene. There's Joe staring, leering, prancing, howling, beaming or weeping.
Usually he's easy to spot. "On the River," a sprawling 1973 work--possibly included to show that Shannon has been idiosyncratic for years--vaguely harks back to Georges Seurat's "La Grande Jatte." We see Shannon with his family, armed with fishing poles on a riverbank. His hair and beard are black. His expression is serious. The painting has a subdued, considered quality. The oil paint has been thinly and carefully applied.
That style is long gone. But Shannon's still there, even in pictures where his face is concealed, such as this year's "Picasso's Catoctin Creek." It's a kind of magical woodland scene, with leafy trees, a clear stream and a magnificent, multi-pointed buck raising his head after a cool drink. Exactly how it relates to Picasso isn't obvious to me. But after close inspection, I know how it relates to Shannon. There's an arrow streaking out of a grove of trees, heading straight for the deer. That buck will stop here. And then Joe Shannon, the artist and avid bow hunter that you don't see, will skin, butcher and eat him. Like venison, Shannon is an acquired taste. For his fans, this is another weird feast.
Gallery K is also showing recent works by Ed Bisese. Many of them are mixed-media pieces in which he paints a kind of pseudo-outsider image-portrait--pots and pans, figures--on top of collages made from magazine clippings that are mounted on board to which he's affixed small sculptural elements relating to both the painting and collage. That's a strong step in a new direction by this consistently inventive artist.
David Shapiro at Numark Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-628-3810, through Dec. 23.
Joe Shannon, Ed Bisese at Gallery K, 2010 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-234-0339, through Nov. 27.