IT'S AN ODD thing when you'd rather look at a picture of an art object than the art object itself.
But that's the case with "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design," a lovely but determinedly odd little exhibition at the National Gallery of Art that spotlights several drawing/watercolors (out of more than 18,000) made by a highly specialized unit of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, the FDR-sponsored program designed to put unemployed artists to work during the Depression. The artists who participated in this program, none of whom you've ever heard of -- Mary Sarah Titcomb, anyone? -- were working on something called the Index of American Design. Its purpose was to create a vast pictorial record of the distinctly American idiom of folk art. With rare exception, the pictures are unsigned.
Hence, what we have here are virtually anonymous pictures -- mostly graphite drawings overlaid with watercolor or a little gouache -- of gimcracks, gewgaws and thingamabobs, along with the usual folk-art Americana of weather vanes, quilts, shop figures . . . and a pair of roller skates. (I'm not quite sure how this last qualifies as "folk art," but never mind.) There are pictures of wooden toys here, furniture and a police lineup of mortars and pestles. A smaller assortment of several of the original artifacts is also on view, by way of comparison.
Without fail, each of the pictures is infinitely more rewarding to examine than its model. First and foremost, that's because they bear the fruit of some dead serious eyeballing. Many of the artists used magnifying glasses in creating their pictures. You can see that attention to detail, for instance, in Magnus S. Fossum's "Boston Town Coverlet," a drawing of a cloth blanket in which the farmer-turned-artist drew -- quite literally -- every thread. Pencil sharpeners must have been de rigueur.
Photography could not have captured this clarity. It forces a kind of startlingly sharp seeing, a way of crawling over the surface of an object with one's eyes to inspect all its cracks and peeling paint. Like an ant on a mosaic, you don't really take in the whole object the way you do when you step back to look at the original. You digest it in crumbs.
The other reason this show is so much fun is equally unexpected. Because of the way the objects are drawn -- without backgrounds or shadows except for those necessary to render surface texture or depth -- they seem to possess a kind of postmodern irony, a sense of wry detachment that comes with the appropriation of one art form by another. They are lifted wholesale from one medium (three-dimensional sculpture) and transplanted to another (works on paper). They do what photographer David Finn tried -- and failed -- to do with his just-closed exhibition of photos of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's sculpture. They make us see the familiar in an unfamiliar way.
The irony, of course, is what we, with our contemporary sensibilities, bring to the table. There was none whatsoever when these pictures were made in the 1930s. They are as flat and deadpan as Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (but look how that couple has been co-opted by the ironists).
Still, it is hard to deny that these pictures have some kind of air-quotes around them. They float in a seamless and timeless white space, a void of a surreal art studio under whose searing lights and unforgiving magnification every blemish is amplified, every pore, every beautifully disfiguring, transcendently decrepit scar becomes not a flaw or an inadvertent afterthought but the very point.
DRAWING ON AMERICA'S PAST: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design -- Through March 2 at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). www.nga.gov. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, Sunday from 11 to 6. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Sunday from 1 to 3 -- Family workshop. Children ages 7 to 10 accompanied by an adult tour the exhibition and create drawings capturing the spirit of modern American design. Registration is required. Call 202-789-3030. Repeated Jan. 19 and Feb. 9.
Jan. 15-17 at 12:30; Jan. 19 at noon -- Film screening: "The River" with "Power and the Land."
Jan. 22-25 at 12:30 -- Film screening: "The City" with "Valley Town."
Feb. 5 and 6 at 12:30; Feb. 9 at noon -- Film screening: "The Storm" with "The Land."