How relevant is the inspiration that drives an artist to produce a particular work? That question can be applied to all artists, but seems particularly meaningful in relation to Claire Flanders's latest body of black-and-white photographs at Troyer Gallery.
In this case, the inspiration seems almost irrelevant. As she has previously, Flanders creates her classically beautiful photos by pursuing an imaginary narrative often based on someone or something in the past. Her newest work, which includes photographs of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres in France, as well as Rock Creek Park, were inspired by the troubled life of Clover Adams, the eminent historian Henry Adams's wife. She was a photographer who never had the opportunity to show her work. Using Henry Adams's book "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres" as a guide, the French-born Flanders visited those famous sites, trying to see the world as Clover Adams did.
That is, of course, impossible. No one can really put himself or herself inside the subjective shell from which another person views the world. So it amounts to a motivational device for the artist. Flanders's photographs tell us where Clover Adams went but nothing about who she was.
Fortunately, that doesn't matter because the images Flanders produces are strong. She is a fine photographer, particularly adept at finding new ways of looking at familiar subjects. Mont-Saint-Michel and the cathedral at Chartres, for example, have been photographed ad nauseam. But Flanders makes them seem lively and unexplored.
Working in a style that falls solidly in the modernist mainstream as defined by photographers like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, Flanders produces meticulously balanced photographs, such as "Patterns on the Sand," from Mont-Saint-Michel, that are lyrical studies of light, shadow, tone and texture. Her Rock Creek Park pictures were made using long exposures with a pinhole camera, giving them a kind of dreamy, antique look.
The gallery is also showing glass sculpture by the artist's son, Will.
Gabriele Stellbaum At Contemporary
Gabriele Stellbaum is a German artist who lives in New York and produces otherworldly multimedia installations that have been shown in the United States and Europe. Her latest creation, "Orbiter 2," is a mesmerizing, four-minute piece of metaphorical magic on view with two of her video works at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The videos, "Loom" and "Lor," in the gallery's front room, are full of shifting shapes that seem to emerge, evolve and vanish before they can be clearly defined. In "Loom," the shapes boil up through some sort of flesh-colored goo, perhaps the primordial ooze from whence life came. "Lor" presents a revolving object that goes through various permutations and gyrations. Neither piece is compelling.
"Orbiter 2" is. It offers a changing panorama of imagery that evokes outer space--planets, space stations, stars and galaxies--produced by Stellbaum on a computer. But the installation is refreshingly low-tech. The swirl of cosmic objects is thrown onto a wall by two slide projectors, whose humming and mechanical clacking provide the only sound. As a result, the viewer can concentrate on the images as they evolve over the course of four minutes.
Stellbaum's painterly images in "Orbiter 2" are tremendously evocative. The shiny planets floating alone through space are a metaphor for modern industrial society, in which atomized individuals exist in an essentially inhospitable environment. Her "space station" structures are like complex sculptures in which central elements such as spheres and rectangles are joined by conduits of varying size, conjuring up a sense of human interconnectedness, of collective endeavor in infinite vastness. It's a Buck Rogers meets Buckminster Fuller piece, built of dreams, utopian visions and the escapist fantasies of childhood.
'Deck the Walls' At Susan Conway
The holidays are upon us, which means many galleries around town are having group shows. Susan Conway Gallery's "Deck the Walls" is a surprising, vibrant example of the species.
Conway has assembled some fine works by well-known Washington area artists including Katja Oxman, Ross M. Merrill, James Hilleary and her husband, the cartoonist Pat Oliphant. But she's also thrown in a few unexpected gems.
The late Carroll Sockwell's five-panel piece, "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall," completed in 1992, the year the artist took his own life, is a strange and marvelous abstraction done in charcoal and graphite on paper. Perhaps unconsciously, Sockwell treated the demolition of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for his deteriorating mental health.
The five panels are covered with slashing black lines that occasionally cross, clash and tangle, forming indecipherable symbols. In some places, erased lines still show, like graffiti painted over but not eradicated. It's a turbulent, forceful work, marking the end of the Cold War era and the imminent demise of the artist.
Sam Scott's "Shining October," a huge, abstract oil on canvas, comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Scott, who lives in New Mexico, has captured the vibrant, striated colors of the Southwestern landscape, glowing in the supercharged sunlight of a perfect autumn day. Winter may be just around the corner, but the painting exudes such warmth that it could compete with a fireplace if the snow ever flies.
Auction at Robert Brown
Robert Brown Gallery is taking a more innovative approach to the holiday show idea: a silent auction. Viewers have until Saturday to submit bids on works by the likes of R.B. Kitaj, Joseph Solman, Donald Sultan, William Kentridge and William Bailey, as well as antiquities and advertising posters from China. Once the reserve, or minimum, price on an item has been met, the highest bidder wins.
Claire Flanders at Troyer Gallery, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-7189, through Dec. 18.
Gabriele Stellbaum at Museum of Contemporary Art, 1054 31st St. NW, Monday-Sunday, 1-6 p.m., 202-342-6230, through Dec. 15.
Susan Conway Gallery, 1214 30th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-333-6343, through Jan. 8.
Auction at Robert Brown Gallery, 2030 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-483-4383, through Dec. 11.
CAPTION: Claire Flanders's "Mont-Saint-Michel, Stairs and Arch," at Troyer Gallery.