Politics so informed Ben Shahn's art that any exhibition of his work reads like the Cliffs Notes to 20th-century American liberalism. And the one-room show on view at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, "For All These Rights: Works by Ben Shahn, 1936-1970," is no exception.
But thanks to curator Laura Katzman of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, this show has a subtler, more interesting point to make about Shahn's relationship to the media. Katzman collected a strong selection of photographs -- some taken by Shahn and other documentary photographers, some clipped by Shahn from newspapers -- that provided the source material for so many of the artist's images. Katzman also included magazine covers and illustrations he designed, and placed them, when possible, adjacent to clippings they derived from. Packed into a display case in the center of the room, this trove of imagery turns out to be the Ben Shahn Rosetta stone.
Inside this case lie echoes of so many of the 19 works (most are lithographs and drawings; one is by his wife) lining the gallery wall. Here we learn something of Shahn's dependence on mass media and photography, as well as how media imagery takes a circuitous route through his interpretations, which he sent back out as magazine illustrations.
Born in Lithuania in 1898, Shahn soon moved with his family to Brooklyn. He started off painting landscapes, but ditched that style for social realism by 1930, when he turned out a suite of watercolors tackling France's Dreyfus case. Several years later, he released a series of gouaches depicting immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were convicted of murder in a trial Shahn considered a miscarriage of justice. These images would propel him to prominence, and in the decades that followed, Shahn's lithographs pumping leftist causes were disseminated across the country.
The source materials for so many of his later images are on display here. Photographed documents of the rural indigent taken for the Farm Security Administration proved to be an important source. A tenant farmer with hand on hip found his way from Shahn's photograph into his wife's Resettlement Administration lithograph; Lewis Hine's shot of a young boy peeking out a window is echoed in a Shahn poster from the same period. And sometimes Shahn used the pictures much later: A 1935 photo of a tenant farmer holding a hand to his mouth would serve, 11 years later, as the model for one of Shahn's labor posters.
Shahn was an avid reader of daily newspapers, and he often clipped pictures he liked. Shahn's illustrations for the Nation of Joseph McCarthy's 1954 Army hearings were lifted from newspaper photos. Later he turned one undated photograph of a group arraigned for defrauding the government into a serigraph addressing the Holocaust. An anguished figure lifted from that group, his head buried in his hands, was the subject of "Warsaw 1943," a 1963 print. Again and again, Shahn's work felt the influence of documentary photography and photojournalism. Not unlike a good chunk of today's artists, Shahn sampled current events, reinterpreted them, and sent them right back at us.
Barry Spann at McLean Barry Spann's first excursion into collotype printmaking, the demanding photo-based process that all but disappeared in recent decades, ended up being his last. The six years Spann spent in Paris in the early 1980s turning out 27 prints proved so frustrating that the reclusive 54-year-old artist, who lives in Tennessee, has concentrated on painting ever since.
What's so bad about collotypes? Their crime is fickleness: Humidity can ruin them. So can slight variations in ink application. Spann saw more failures than successes run through the press as he struggled to get his blacks and grays just right. The process was eventful enough to yield a book, "The Pursuit of Happy Results," from which an exhibition, now on view at McLean Project for the Arts, borrows its title. These 27 collotypes, on loan from Richmond's Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, rework 27 meticulous pencil drawings Spann made between 1977 and 1983.
Just in case you're reading this, Mr. Spann: For the rest of us, at least, the hassle was worth it.
While most of these prints are postcard-size, they offer windows into a larger fantasy world. With them, Spann channels 19th-century Asian printmakers and the Brothers Grimm, compressing space into flat planes. So steeply compacted are the mountain peaks and clouds in "Cold Mountain" that the piece could be a homage to legendary Japanese printmaker Hokusai's renditions of Mount Fuji.
Add to that Asian influence a Gothic sensibility evocative of bad omens and general spookiness, and you've got a good sense of a Spann print. The artist loves to render nighttime scenes, especially cold clear nights when the sky turns black. In "Beneath a Full Moon," houses are dwarfed by a too-big moon with fingerling clouds stretching over its face. A print like this would perfectly illustrate a fairy tale; you expect Little Red Riding Hood to bound over the hillside momentarily.
Spann's natural world is a dark and sensual place full up with slinky knolls, plump leaves, ribbed plains and fleshy petals. Spann has awakened Nature, and she is hungry. Hillsides are nothing if not curvaceous. Mammoth sunflowers demand half the frame. Here the high detail and rich tones of the collotype process really pay off -- the prints themselves underscore the voluptuousness of his vision.
What a shame, then, that these spectacular prints get second-class installation in McLean. Spann's prints line a ramp leading to the white-box, skylighted main galleries. Historically, the Ramp Gallery was reserved for educational or community groups -- this is a community center, after all. But the space seems a curious spot for work as fine as Spann's, given the more gracious galleries just around the corner.
Works by Ben Shahn, 1936-1970 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW, Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., 202-777-3208, through Dec. 11.
Pursuit of Happy Results at McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 1-5 p.m., 703-790-1953, through Monday.