IT SEEMS appropriate that, during a recent visit to the Edison Place Gallery to check out "Carroll Sockwell: Am I the Best?," jazz was playing over the P.A. system. After all, as the young woman sitting behind the desk accurately noted, this retrospective look at the work of the late Washington artist (1943-92) is "kind of a jazz show" itself.
There's a turbulence in much of Sockwell's art that is, in fact, musical. That's true even in his seemingly sedate, geometric canvases and drawings, which are always slightly off-balance despite the appearance of having been made with a straightedge. But it's especially true in the artist's signature charcoal-, colored pencil- and pastel-on-paper works, where sharp, angular figures and Cy Twomblyesque scribbles frequently vie for dominance within a vortex of swirling, indistinct notes. This is definitely not the classical station. Like the best jazz or rock 'n' roll, Sockwell's art seems often in danger of flying apart at the hinges, but never does. There's a calculated risk taken, a controlled edginess at play, that makes even the most derivative work hold the eye. When Sockwell deliberately played at the edge of the precipice -- and his art is nothing if not a form of brinksmanship -- his knack for visual composition was too unerring to ever let disaster happen.
It's tempting, of course, to make more of an artist's biography when writing about his art than is healthy, particularly when, as with Sockwell, that life was as turbulent as his. Tragic even. At age 49, the D.C.-born Sockwell apparently threw himself off a local bridge, ending a career whose trajectory had been marked with alienated dealers, strained friendships, arrogance mixed with corrosive self-doubt, alcohol abuse and, despite a 1974 solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (a coup at the time for an African American), far less recognition than his talent deserved.
The show's title, you see, is both a question and a statement. Am I the Best? Am I the Best!
The Washington Arts Museum, which sponsored the exhibition, can't seem to make up its mind either, including a question mark on some of its material, such as the press release, but not on others, such as the catalogue and Web site.
"He would flash anger," writes the show's curator, painter Sam Gilliam, "if told he wasn't among the best in D.C." Yet it is also true, according to Gilliam, who was interviewed for a lengthy article that appeared in this paper just after the artist's death, that Sockwell was at times paralyzed by his demons to the point that he was unable to create anything.
How, then, could the art that he did make not also be troubled?
Yet it often is just the opposite. Serene, composed, fussy at times. Even his mixed-media assemblages, made from flattened tape measures, crushed cans, nailed-down coins and other found objects, seem pressed on an ironing board. Not so "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall," a suite of five pastel-on-ragwood drawings from 1992 that collectively are the show's centerpiece and that have been described, by former Washington Project for the Arts director Don Russell, as the artist's "masterwork."
A torrent of blurred hieroglyphics and gestural abstraction, "Wrecking" is probably the work of Sockwell's that's most at peace, despite its frenzy. Which is not to say that the artist's rage has quite been contained here, but that the balance of the feral and the tame are finally most at equipoise.
Like the historical event ostensibly celebrated in the work's title, the pictures embody not just the disintegration of the old order but the simultaneous establishment of a new one. Behind its blizzard of static, beneath the rasping white noise, can be detected the distinctive music of a bright and shining new day.
CARROLL SOCKWELL: AM I THE BEST? -- Through Dec. 17 at the Edison Place Gallery, 701 Eighth St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-872-3396. www.wamuseum.org. Open Tuesday-Friday noon to 4. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Friday at 7:30 -- Symposium: Exhibition curator and painter Sam Gilliam joins artists Michael Clark, Jim Hilleary and Kevin MacDonald in a discussion of Sockwell's life and art, moderated by Jean Lawlor Cohen. Free.