LOST IN the pre-holiday hubbub and the Y2K-bug buzz, a bomb went off at the Corcoran Gallery of Art last month.
Stop right there.
By "bomb," I mean a burst of that which is strong, smart and novel.
As in, "The 1999 National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts/Fellowships in the Visual Arts Exhibition is da bomb." The show's dull and cumbersome title notwithstanding, the percussive detonation is palpable when you step through the door to confront Sean Mellyn's pop/surrealist paintings, so glamorous and alluring in their butter-smooth oil surfaces yet so devastating in their witheringly deadpan subject matter -- and more than just a little bit disturbing.
Along with painter, draftsman and collagist Paul Mullins and photographer, videographer, performance and installation artist Elizabeth Cheatham, Mellyn is one of three up-and-coming young artists on exhibit at the Corcoran (all are under 35 and all recent participants in the Miami-based National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' Fellowship in the Visual Arts program to recognize emerging talent). Yet Mellyn's the one whose images you'll likely carry with you the longest, as much for the luscious luminosity of their finely worked finishes as for the veiled eroticism and vaguely unsettling threat of a sinister future they contain.
The first painting you see is Mellyn's "Untitled (Big Girl)." True to its nickname, it's a 10-foot-tall painting (actually two canvases, hinged so that the head looks down at you) of a female child dressed in blue, hung in such a manner that the subject's crotch -- revealing a glimpse of panties beneath her short skirt -- is right about eye level. Towering above you like some parody of a Soviet icon, she points her right arm forward in a gesture of progress that is both comically heroic and accusatory.
But is she fingering you, the voyeur, or the naughty boy across the way in a smaller diptych called "Untitled (Blue Ball)"? It depicts a grinning scamp whose hands -- actually casts of the artist's hands made of plasterlike hydrocal -- emerge from the bottom of the picture plane, one holding a blue marble, the other pointing downward in a decidedly phallic obscene gesture.
Allusions to reproduction, eugenics, sex and sexlessness abound. In "Between Red Oaks," a pigtailed girl (said by show organizer Paige Turner to uncannily resemble Mellyn) looks up through a groin of tree branches from a bird's nest of pristine white eggs. On the wall opposite that is "Cold Storage," a painting of an open refrigerator in front of which lie several smashed resin eggs and an upturned carton advertising the "plump, firm yolks" of its product. Just next to the fridge hangs "Gallons (Male and Female)," a small picture of two plastic milk jugs ... all but indistinguishable, or is one slightly more plump, slightly more firm than the other?
Mellyn's people are inspired by postwar snapshots and advertising photos, and their faces -- when not shrouded in paper bags, as they are in "86" and "Poison Ivy" -- are epicene, neither masculine nor feminine but like some science-altered hybrid. Their eyes are just a little too big, their skin just a little too perfect to be real, yet they are also just a little too freakish, too flawed to be anything but human.
Like Mellyn, Mullins is equally oblique, approaching themes of masculine aggression, the decay of the body and the latent homoeroticism of sports in a sidelong fashion. In works like "Bareknuckle," headless middle-aged men (wrestlers, boxers, body builders) are shown frozen a la turn-of-the-century Irish American pugilist John L. Sullivan -- wearing tights, a sash belt around the sagging gut and with arms raised in a pose that is both stiffly formal and reminiscent of male arousal. Other works, such as "Spinning Toehold," with its scene of domination and subjugation in the wrestling ring -- here a floating circle of what curator Turner calls "ovoid shapes" (eggs again!) -- are less ambiguous in their examination of the politics of the body.
According to Turner, Mullins leaves the faces off his subjects to keep his portraits anonymous, but like Juliao Sarmento's show last year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the missing heads here seem blasted off or pulverized with what is sometimes great violence.
Into the mix, Mullins stirs quasi-autobiography, scribbling lists of favorite artists, places he's been, distorted family history and snatches of dialogue. His work, including a wall covered with 80 8-by-13-inch drawings, has more static in its music than Mellyn's thumping bass notes, but its melody is nonetheless worth straining for.
Elizabeth Cheatham gets busiest of all, creating a multimedia installation here that incorporates a videotape of the artist blowing up party balloons until they burst (the look on her face of bemused ennui is priceless as these rubber ova and phalluses burst in her face), a central pile of misshapen Christmas presents that hide motion-activated door chimes, painted "weep holes" that drain dirty tears from the gallery wall, found-object bricolage and two series of photographic self-portraits depicting the artist bathed in colored lights and against backdrops of holiday paraphernalia.
Perhaps most intriguing is Cheatham's "Depressing Cycle of Seasonal Events," 10 digitally printed photographs of herself in such festive tableaus as Thanksgiving, where Cheatham placed her mouth to the hose of a shop vac as the remnants of a gruesome TV dinner sit nearby, all beneath a reproduction of a painting of an elderly man praying over a loaf of bread. The series confronts issues of loneliness, commercialism, fear, hope and mortality (especially in the Independence Day piece, where the cigarette hanging out of the artist's mouth looks suspiciously like an arrow, making the red, white and blue bunting behind her head look more like a bull's eye).
The images are filled with pop-culture detritus, but despite the ugliness of the party props the pictures themselves are strangely beautiful. Cheatham peels the glossy emulsion off photographic paper backing, then perforates and tears it, leaving a delicate-looking but surprisingly resilient film that makes the personal images tacked casually to the wall (like discarded wrapping paper made of skin) all the more intimate and redolent of vulnerability.
What this exhibition proves, among other things, is the enduring power of the figurative tradition, the increasingly quaint artistic notion that the human form still retains the ability to express a variety of ideas and emotions. All three artists carry this conservative custom forward in unique and exciting ways. All three inject pieces of themselves into their work. All three appropriate tiny bits of art history and filter them through the fashionable lens of irony.
And, probably only coincidentally, all three utilize the motif of the egg in some explicit or implicit manner, but don't go looking for correspondence there. At the show's simplest level, the one thing these emerging artists have most in common is this: not just that they each won a fellowship but that they each so richly deserve it.
1999 NATIONAL FOUNDATION FOR ADVANCEMENT IN THE ARTS/FELLOWSHIP IN THE VISUAL ARTS EXHIBITION -- Through Feb. 14 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202/639-1700. Web site: www.corcoran.org. Open 10 to 5 daily except Tuesdays; open Thursdays to 9. Admission is by suggested donation of $3, $1 for seniors and students, $5 for family groups.