CAIO FONSECA'S PAINTINGS are, intensely, themselves. Stylistically monolithic in a way that might convince a visitor that he could die a happy man without ever having to look at another painting by this artist again -- at least not ones so very much alike -- the artist's latest work, on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in an exhibition called "Inventions," is a triumph of style over substance.
Notice I said triumph.
Sure, there's a visual sameness to the work. In each, a colorful abstraction hides beneath a soupy, often off-white shroud of paint into which the artist appears to have cut small, gestural holes, or, as the show's vaguely punning title suggests, "vents," through which the underlying substratum can be glimpsed. Farther down below these surfaces lies another, third layer as well: a foundation of some gesso-thick primer that Fonseca seems to have squeegeed across the canvas in rows, leaving scarification-like track marks that give the otherwise glib work texture, and traction. On top of everything, you'll find further scratches and marks incised into the distressed surface, a kind of final, illegible graffiti.
These works aren't really about ideas, of course, unless you count space, shape and scale (and the relationships between them) as ideas. And why shouldn't you? Not everything need have a conceptual component these days. And Fonseca's aesthetic investigations are nothing if not rigorous. There's something visually meaty about his art that, despite a reliance on formula that approaches gimmickry, wins over skeptics.
In other words, it works . . . because it works on the eye. Forget the head and the heart. Fonseca's art is cool, but not rational. Calculated, but not calculating. It looks good and modern, if not quite contemporary, yet it's never so handsome or so slick that it makes you feel uncomfortable standing in front of it. It's art that's meant to be seen big -- museum and office-building walls were made for it -- and yet, paradoxically, it becomes most alive when it's shrunken down from, say, the size of a picture window to the size of a sheet of notebook paper.
A single wall of these small works, in fact, activates the show's most surprising feature. Hung salon-style, the crowded selection of pocket- to medium-size paintings suddenly lose what is, for Fonseca's largest paintings, something akin to shtick. At this more intimate scale, Fonseca's "trick" -- half-hiding paintings beneath what look like torn bed sheets -- fails, even as his artistry becomes more apparent. Foreground suddenly recedes into the background, and what used to look like openings or windows through which we could peek at another painting start to become marks in and of themselves, with their own visual language.
It's weird, but as Fonseca scales things way down, his works become at once less grandstanding, and grander, than paintings 10 times their size.
The issue of scale comes into play, for different reasons, in a second Corcoran show.
Or perhaps scope is a better word than scale.
"Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections From the Collection of Julia J. Norrell" includes nearly 200 works dating from the mid-19th century to just last year. Featuring photography, painting, mixed-media collage, furniture, prints, sculpture, drawing and interactive audio, and ranging stylistically from folk-art dolls to contemporary installation art, "Common Ground" is, despite its name, a bit all over the map.
Community, of course, implies a unity of diverse elements, but there's little here, despite many wonderful individual works, that feels especially cohesive. Norrell, a Washington-based lobbyist, is the daughter of a former congressman and congresswoman and grew up in Arkansas and Washington. Other than an obvious affinity for work related to the experience of African Americans in the rural and urban South, however, "Common Ground" fails to live up to even the very generous embrace of its title and numerous subheadings: "Past and Present," "A Sense of Place," "Community," "Hope and Belief" and "Memory and Tribute." Show a good curator most anyone's collection, and he or she ought to be able to shoehorn at least part of it into one or more of these generic themes.
What "Common Ground" says, if anything, is something about the tastes of the woman who owns it. Norrell's eye is, despite some lapses, generally pretty good (although I could have done without Jonathan Green's greeting-card-worthy "Daughters of the South," a forgettable Howard Finster and other tame works by "name" artists such as Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark).
Though Norrell casts her net far and wide, "Common Ground" occasionally dips back into local waters, and pieces by Ken Ashton, William Christenberry, David Driskell, William Dunlap, Mark Power and Renee Stout are always nice to see. Still, if you get around town at all, it's not like you haven't seen most of it before.
One hundred and fifty years is a long time -- and a lot of "ground" to cover. But the Corcoran's slack editing of Norrell's collection is far too "common" to make much of an impression.
INVENTIONS: RECENT PAINTINGS BY CAIO FONSECA -- Through Feb. 14.
COMMON GROUND: DISCOVERING COMMUNITY IN 150 YEARS OF ART, SELECTIONS FROM THE COLLECTION OF JULIA J. NORRELL -- Through Jan. 31.
Both 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. Members and children under 12 free. Admission all day Mondays and Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."