Big, brawny and suffused with portentous machismo, Agustin Fernandez's darkly surreal paintings look like the sort of thing Darth Vader might hang over his bachelor-pad couch, if he had a really huge couch and a living room the size of an ice rink.
Large paintings by Fernandez, a 71-year-old Cuban-born painter who lives in New York City, are on display in the cavernous confines of Signal 66, possibly the only commercial art space in Washington that could house so many big works. Remarkably, Fernandez's paintings feel even bigger than they are, and some are 10 feet high and up to 16 feet wide.
That expansive effect comes from Fernandez's peculiar and compelling imagery. He paints in an abstract style that could be termed photo-surrealism, since the turbulent, sexually charged images made by combining organic and industrial elements are so meticulously depicted they seem almost like three-dimensional photographs of some bizarre alternative reality.
These are powerful works. In "Anaconda (The Serpent Describes a Circle Around the Dreamer)," the coils of a gigantic, armor-plated phallus/python writhe like an endlessly tangled, black-and-silver knot on the canvas. In another work, layers of rusty bulwarks and louvers surround a single, silvery female breast. The contrast between the breast's vulnerable softness and the impregnable metal surrounding it creates a palpable erotic tension.
Born in Havana, Fernandez was once a classmate of Fidel Castro and participated in the Cuban Revolution of 1959. His career flourished before Castro came to power and continued to do so afterward when he received a government scholarship to study art in Europe. After 10 years in Paris and a stint in Puerto Rico, he moved to New York in 1972.
Fernandez's unique style and masterly painting have put his works in a number of major institutions around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Although he is ranked as one of the most important Cuban artists in exile, the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana refuses to show its collection of his early, pre-exile works. One can only hope the regime is preserving them, since it seems inevitable that the museum will host a Fernandez retrospective in the post-Castro future.
Rob Barnard, Tom Nakashima at Anton GalleryAnton Gallery is showing new work by two of its stalwarts, potter Rob Barnard and painter Tom Nakashima. The shapes of Barnard's wood-fired pottery are always simple and recognizable: a jar, a teapot, a bowl. The wonder lies in their variegated surfaces and wonderfully subtle, sometimes surprising earth tones, which result not from glazes but from firing the objects for three days in a wood-burning kiln. It's a mysterious process, yielding remarkable variations on ancient themes, and Barnard handles it like no one else in the world.
Nakashima's series of new works, "Tree Piles in Berryville," was inspired by a heap of dead trees he saw one winter day while touring a plot of land where he built his home. The best piece is "Snow Falling on Treepile." The title and content seem like a play on David Guterson's bestseller, "Snow Falling on Cedars," about doomed love.
But in Nakashima's giant rendering of a tree pile, made from newsprint, ink, chalk and polymer on canvas, it's the rural landscape that's doomed by the relentless expansion of suburbia. His dirty snow is made from cut-up bits of the newspaper, particularly the stock market tables and classified ads. The black ink branches of the downed trees look like detailed road maps of new housing developments, the kind that wipe out whole forests but bear names like The Woodlands or Whispering Pines.
Nakashima's message could have been delivered with a lighter hand, but the piece is so visually engaging that it doesn't really matter.
Holiday Potpourri Sprinkled through the group shows that can be found in galleries all over town this holiday season are some very fine works at very reasonable prices. Here is a quick tour of three of these shows:
The most entertaining, eclectic and cohesive of the three is "Art for the Millennium" at Gallery 10. The gallery's directors and associates invited a small group of guest artists, including Michael Platt, Kevin MacDonald and Eglon Daley, to join them for this exhibition. Despite a wide range of styles and media in the 60 works that are packed into the three small rooms, there are no major conflicts. Platt's portrait "Student #1," a Gerhard Richteresque digital print, is the quiet star here.
In Gallery K's annual "Small Is Beautiful" holiday show, there are 122 works by 64 artists, including new pieces by the gallery's painters and sculptors and older works from the collection of owners Komei Wachi and Marc Moyens. Styles range from figurative to abstract. A highlight among the older works is "Liverpool," a small 1970 painting by Joseph Reed that looks like a Victorian miniature of that port city, until one realizes that all the figures--coachmen, dockworkers, pedestrians--are ants. Among the new works, Patrick Craig's "Twin Daze," a moody, severe geometric abstraction in green and yellow acrylic, stands out.
District Fine Arts' group show, "Small Works," by gallery artists is uniformly strong and edgier than the other exhibitions. Highlights include Janis Goodman's lovely monotype of a thicket of trees against a grid backdrop; Craig Cahoon's small, Chinese-inflected abstract paintings; and Ken Ashton's color photograph of a disused standpipe in front of a mural that makes a concrete pillar appear to be gushing cool, blue water into the urban wasteland.
Agustin Fernandez at Signal 66, 926 N St. NW, through Jan. 15. Thursday, noon-5 p.m.; Friday, 5-8 p.m.; Saturday, noon-6 p.m. 202-842-3436.
Tom Nakashima and Rob Barnard at Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through Jan. 2. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. 202-328-0828.
Art for the Millennium at Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, through Jan. 8. Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 202-232-3326.
Small Is Beautiful at Gallery K, 2010 R. St. NW, through Dec. 30. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-234-0339.
Small Works at District Fine Arts, 1726 Wisconsin Ave. NW, through Jan. 5. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
CAPTION: Fernandez's "Fetish" contrasts texture with smoothness, the industrial with the erotic.
CAPTION: In Gallery 10's "Art for the Millennium," 60 works to suit every taste and pocketbook.