PAINTING, in the eyes of some, is a little like hand candle-dipping: an art form that, while not entirely extinct, is a tad quaint and old-fashioned. That's truer, at any rate, of the unironic, unself-conscious painting that's still out there than it is of painting that seems to know -- and comment on with a healthy amount of winking -- how deliberately out of sync it is with much of contemporary art (thereby, of course, bringing it back into sync).
Examples of both kinds are on view at two juried painting exhibitions in the area: "Strictly Painting 5," the fifth biennial survey of its kind at the McLean Project for the Arts, and "Bethesda Painting Awards," a competition founded this year by Carol Trawick to compensate for the fact that paintings never seemed especially popular with the judges of the Trawick Prize, a separate contemporary art competition founded three years ago by the Bethesda businesswoman. Holding down the more traditional end of the spectrum are the eight artists in the Bethesda show, juried by painting professors Churchill Davenport and Chawky Frenn (the latter of whom is himself a fine figurative painter) and art historian and writer Claudia Rousseau. Across the river in McLean, the 19 artists selected by juror Jonathan Binstock, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, show a broader, less tightly defined notion of what constitutes painting.
Brian Balderston, for example, tied for second place at McLean with Nora Sturges, a painter whose exquisitely rendered surrealist narratives about the travels of a contemporary "Marco Polo" are, for my money, the best representational paintings in the show. Balderston, for his part, offers two witty, conceptual works that may or may not be what you consider painting: "Corner," in which the artist carpeted and paint-rollered, with high-gloss enamel white house paint, a small corner of the gallery's already matte white walls. His second work, "17 minutes 9.24 seconds (for Robert)," is a short movie clip documenting the artist performing a similar feat with blue masking tape and house paint, turning a large, sofa-ready patch of white wall into a barely visible minimalist abstraction. The "Robert" of the title, however, is not white-on-white painter Robert Ryman, as you might expect, but Robert Rauschenberg, whose solid-white paintings predated Ryman's by several years. Balderston's title also plays on composer John Cage's "4'33"," a musical composition for piano featuring four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.
Painting purists won't like it, but neither are they going to appreciate Inga McCaslin Frick's "Interior Decorating I" at Fraser, a mixed-media work that features more digital imagery and collaged fabric than actual paint. Oh, well. I happen to think that art should challenge, and not merely confirm, one's expectations. Leave the confirmation to painters such as David R. Daniels, whose pretty, but pretty unprovocative, nature watercolors at Fraser do little to advance the ball down the field. The "Bethesda Painting Awards" best-in-show winner Joe Kabriel, however, with his vertiginous, disorienting perspectival shifts, at least plays with the boundary between photography and painting, and the notion of the picture frame as a window into another, literal world.
Binstock's first-prize winner at McLean (Susan Moore, for a series of well-made but rather conventional portraits) seems a surprise. On the other hand, his honorable mentions (Karey Kessler, for three small, poetic pieces, half abstraction, half cityscape; and Phyllis Plattner, for her Renaissance religious scenes reenacted by folk-art dolls depicting Zapatista guerrillas) were nice choices.
I also especially liked Suzanna Fields's "Growth Spurt," flower form of pure paint, free-floating without canvas backing, and Jody Schwab's abstractions, in which the artist collages premade smears and splashes of acrylic paint onto white-painted panels in an idiosyncratic inventory of mark-making. Both have quasi-sculptural qualities.
The bottom line in approaching both shows is that you've got to like something about paint -- its physical, tactile properties and the way it sits on top of, or soaks into, the surface it's on -- and not just an artist's technique to understand why someone would still, with whatever amount of irony, pick up a paint brush today.
Even Balderston, with his hardware store roller and video camera, obviously enjoys the experience of putting pigment on a flat surface, a pleasure that goes all the way back to the caves of Lascaux.
STRICTLY PAINTING 5 -- Through July 30 at the McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. 703-790-1953. www.mpaart.org. Open Tuesday-Friday 10 to 4; Saturdays 1 to 5. Free.
BETHESDA PAINTING AWARDS -- Through July 6 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. www.thefrasergallery.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 to 6. Free.