IN JUST A FEW decades, photography and abstraction undermined most of the assumptions of representational art. Weekend painters can still daub landscapes and still lifes as if nothing has changed, but the professional artists who turned to realism in the latter half of the 20th century acknowledged that the rules had changed. In fact, many of them began as abstract painters and knew that idiom as well as they did classical painting.
"Rectangle 7," the oldest piece in "Prime Works: The Art of Joseph White," is a colorful, almost psychedelic abstraction, the only such piece in the exhibition. Yet its contrast of hard shapes and soft focus continues in the painter's most recent art. Although the painting dates from 1969, seven years before White moved to Washington, in technique it's clearly related to such recent work as 2002's "New Orleans" and especially 1995's "Tibet River," an epic vista whose shapes become increasingly diffuse as you approach the image. Those paintings are among the 16 oils on linen in "Prime Works," which also includes five preparatory works on paper or video. This modest but well-selected survey, curated by Jamie L. Smith and presented by the Washington Arts Museum, is on display at the Edison Place Gallery, an attractive, flexible downtown arts space whose principal disadvantage is that it's open only 16 hours a week.
Aside from "Rectangle 7," the paintings are all representational, mostly depicting urban buildings, but with numerous views of water, both channeled and natural. Whether he's depicting "View From F Street" or "Luxor" -- the only one of the pieces that includes a human presence -- White's subjects are identifiable, although that's not of primary significance. Rather than function as documentary views of White's ongoing grand tour, these pictures share many characteristics with post-painterly abstraction, including grand scale and large fields of flat color. As the preparatory pieces indicate, White works from photographs and videos, and his style has one similarity to photorealism: Although he rejects that subgenre's obsessive visual minutiae, he shares its glossy, sharp-edged delineation of light and reflection, especially when representing water.
The development of White's style can be seen in the contrast between 1986's "Two Buildings NY" and "San Francisco Skyscraper," painted a decade later. The former blurs the distinction between architectural rendering and color-field painting, with recognizable shapes reduced to shape and hue. The later painting is also abstracted, but it's more detailed and -- probably because it was informed by a video -- has a sense of motion. Yet the two pictures are more alike than dissimilar. Unlike photorealists and other painters who celebrate urban oddities, White uses "San Francisco Skyscraper's" increased detail to create an orderly succession of shapes.
He seeks the universal rhythm, not the picturesque exception. That may not be enough to link White with the most mystical of abstract expressionists, but "Prime Works" clearly demonstrates that he's more interested in exploring larger forms than in merely documenting the world that anyone today can capture with a camera cell phone.
The picture that stands out in the Apex Gallery's "Realism Today: Contemporary New York Artists" is a pseudo-Florentine Renaissance diptych, "The Duke and Duchess of Caldwell," which not only depicts two cast members of "The Sopranos" but was also painted by one -- Federico Castelluccio, who in addition to his acting career has been a working artist for more than 20 years. Amid the other portraits, nudes and still lifes, Castelluccio's piece has two things that the other paintings lack: celebrity, of course, but also irony.
In the context of this exhibition, the latter is more significant. Aside from Castelluccio, the more than a dozen artists in this new Seventh Street gallery's survey don't ape historical styles, temper realism with abstraction or comment loudly on the role of figurative art. Their paintings -- all oils on canvas or linen -- aren't examples of expressionism, photorealism or any other form of post-photographic representation. They're just realism as if the 20th century never happened.
The show's guest curator is Vivian Matz-Levi, who included several of her own pictures. Her hand is freer than those of some of the other artists, but the range of styles is narrow. At one end is Patricia Watwood, whose "Claudia" is an old-fashioned portrait of a contemporary woman, with brush strokes minimized and an impeccable finish; at the other is Sarah Lamb, whose "Oysters and Silver" is a painterly still life whose predominantly gray palette sets off the yellow of a lemon and the glimmer of reflection in a goblet.
These paintings (and a few drawings) are very controlled, so it's no surprise that nearly all of them were executed in studios. John Morra's "Through Manhattan Bridge" is the only exterior, although Jon de Martin's "Studio Window Afternoon" does offer a bit of a view out the window. The bustle of the busiest, most crowded American city is absent in this work, which generally focuses on a single person or a small collection of things.
The modern world enters the compositions only discreetly, as in Kate Lehman's "Elise," a large female nude that's neoclassical in every way except the tattoo on the subject's arm, or Morra's "Vintage Sunbeam," a precise rendering of a weathered old mixer.
These painters, most of them born in the 1960s, all studied at the New York Academy of Art or with a handful of kindred teachers, learning the skills and techniques that were supplanted by Cubists and abstractionists almost a century ago. They've learned them well. Still, there's a "now what?" quality to much of the work. Dan Thompson's "The Painter," which dapples disparate hues into the principal colors, threatens to invent impressionism, and Nick Raynolds's detailed yet partially unfinished figure studies flirt with surrealism. Yet there's little evidence in the exhibition that this new New York School, having rediscovered realism, is now ready for a stylistic breakthrough.
PRIME WORKS: THE ART OF JOSEPH WHITE -- Through June 30 at Edison Place Gallery, 701 Eighth St. NW. 202-872-3396. Open Tuesday-Friday from noon to 4.
REALISM TODAY: CONTEMPORARY NEW YORK ARTISTS -- Through May 29 at Apex Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW. 202-638-7001. Open Wednesday-Sunday 11 to 5.