One of the often overlooked treats of Old Town Alexandria, and worth a visit right now, is the Athenaeum, an art museum and gallery at 201 Prince St. Although it is an affiliate of the prestigious Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Athenaeum has too little space in its restored, mid-19th century building to house a permanent collection.
Its seriousness as a museum, however, is evident in the quality of the Athenaeum's shows, approximately 10 a year. Often the works shown are those of Northern Virginia artists; often there are exhibit items for sale.
On display at the Athenaeum through Sunday are four watercolors By Henry Wo Yue-Kee, who studied art in Hong Kong and now lives in Alexandria.
Wo's paintings have a distinctly Oriental feeling, but are clearly influenced by Western art. His subjects come from nature, and he is particularly at home portraying animal forms.
A huge, two-panel painting of two cows grazing in the first piece to strike a visitor entering through the massive double doors of the museum. The cows appear to be emerging from a sea of mist and have such a dreamlike quality that one imagines they will desappear any minute. Lotus blossoms painted on a horizontal scroll, about 2 1/2 feet high and 12 feet wide, also are shrouded in mist, suffused with a pale light reminiscent of Monet's water lilies. Delicate details such as the diaphanous wings of dragon flies hovering near the lotus petals and the glittering, moist fragility of the petals themselves characterize this and nearly all the paintings in the show.
In many of Wo's paintings, the violets and mauves of his flowers and beige-grays of his cows and birds give way to bursts of jewel-like blues and greens, vivd colors that Wo obtains by grinding his own pigments of lapis lazuli and malachite. The intensity of these colors combined with delicate brushwork and the ability to "create light" are, as one of Wo's teachers once put it, subtly combined in a painting of a peacock whose brilliant tail is balanced by a subtly highlighted wing. The feathers appear so alluringly downy that it is difficult not to reach out and touch them.
Such detail is both an aesthetic and a technical achievement. Wo paints on soaking wet Japanese rice paper, a technique which, one artist said, "can't be done, but he does it." It is the fine strokes integrated with the large areas of free washes that bring Wo's paintings to life.
Wo's mastery of his brush is dramatically evident in his ink drawings, a traditional Chinese form in which Wo creates a feeling of both tranquility and vibrant life through the balance of mass and space, dark tones and light. His animal and flower forms in these paintings are recognizable but more nearly abstract than in his work with color.
Wo, who is 53, has lived in the United States for five years. On visits before he moved here, he made pen-and-ink sketches of Martha's Vineyard. His drawings, published in a catalogue that is on display with the paintings, are characteristic of his more definitive, less dreamlike early style.
Wo does not paint directly from his subjects. He observes and experiences the subject without sketching it, then at some later date -- sometimes even months later -- paints the recollection of what he has seen, interpreting it with the license memory permits.
Wo's work has been exhibited widely in Hong Kong, where he had his first one-man show, arranged by his admiring art school teachers when he was 16. Since then he has had shows in Japan, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Canada and the United States. The Athenaeum exhibit is his first major show in the Washington area.
Admission to the Athenaeum is free, although visitors' donations are welcomed. On weekends, trained volunteer guides answer visitors' questions, and during the week, the museum's director is on hand to field inquiries.
While visiting the Athenaeum, be sure to pick up a calendar listing the museum's varied activities -- many of them for children open to members and nonmembers. Currently there are Friday-afternoon poetry classes taught by poet-author May Berry, and activities ranging from fiber workshops to a "dungeons and dragons" session to Western movies for children on Sunday afternoons.