YOU DON'T SO MUCH see Anil Revri's art as feel it.
In addition to being a preemptive apology for the failure of the images reproduced alongside this article to capture the originals' many optical subtleties -- an unavoidable hazard of newsprint -- the above statement is a pretty accurate description of the experience of standing in front of one of his shimmering, meditative abstractions, many of which incorporate eerily three-dimensional drawing in metallic marker. A few of them seem to literally vibrate. Others re-create the sensation of standing over an open hole, or of looking upward at a translucent, vaulted ceiling, through which the viewer might be sucked up into the cosmos at any moment.
It's good to have this much of the Washington-based painter's work together in one room. Prior to finding the 41 pieces gathered for the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "In Search of Self: Paintings and Drawings by Anil Revri," many Washingtonians (myself included) might only have been familiar with Revri's art through its inclusion in the occasional group show, such as a 2000 juried exhibition at the Arlington Arts Center or a 2001 display by the Corcoran of recent acquisitions.
That last show, which put on view six out of a series of 18 small drawings called "Cultural Crossings" -- all of which address themes common to six of the world's religions, and all of which are reunited for "In Search of Self" -- hardly began to give an indication of what Revri's pictures, at their most powerful, are capable of. Incorporating passages of scriptural text from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism on the subject of desire, renunciation and peace, along with iconic design motifs from those faiths' artistic and architectural trappings, the "Cultural Crossings" suite is a kind of conceptual art. Involving as much reading as looking, and premised on the contemplation of a kind of global village, the drawings afford more of an intellectual engagement with their audience than a visceral one.
Not so the artist's "Veiled Doorways" series, several examples of which have been collected here. Subtly mystical, yet with a powerful physical presence, Revri's "Veiled Doorways" take advantage of the fact that we are conditioned to see pictures as windows of a sort. Here, however, these windows both invite us in and bar our entrance, creating a wonderful tension.
In many cases, they utilize trompe l'oeil "frames" to set up the illusion of a portal of sorts, which often seems to recede into the distance, beckoning us to come inside. Like the Corcoran's own "Niagara," for instance, the famous canvas by Frederic Edwin Church, the effect is vertiginous and thrilling. Don't be surprised if you find yourself taking a step back, in order to avoid tumbling into the precipice.
This, of course, is the idea.
Yet even as Revri plays with the notion of illusory space -- several of his pictures feature cloudlike objects drifting across an open sky, or what appears to be starry canopies of the heavens -- he simultaneously reminds us that these are only paintings, stringing, as it were, a kind of monofilament wire across their openings in the form of fine lines of crisscrossing silver marker. Like a spider's web that you might walk into without seeing, or the beams of laser light in a motion-detecting security system, Revri's geometric grids seduce us to come forward, into them, then snare us.
The title of the show, as it happens, is your first clue that the otherworldly worlds toward which Revri's art seems to point lie not without but within us.
With their baldfaced spirituality, they invite not astral projection but a kind of introspection. It is not Revri who is searching for some form of "self" expression but us. In a sense, his paintings and drawings are not meant as windows of perception, but mirrors. Looking into them, we can see -- but, tantalizingly, never reach -- ourselves.
IN SEARCH OF SELF: PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS BY ANIL REVRI -- Through Sept. 13 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open daily (except Tuesdays) 10 to 5; Thursdays to 9. $6.75, seniors $4.75, students and guests of members $3, family groups $12. Children under 12 free. Admission all day Mondays and Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."