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In the galleries: Showcasing an artist’s exploration and influence

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Many of the artworks in “Chicago/Washington,” the John Alexander Steele retrospective at Fred Schnider Gallery, were made in one of the two cities in the show’s title. Yet both of the very different styles on display appear more European than American. Steele moved to Washington in 1958, lived here until his 2017 death and was reportedly influenced by such Washington colorists as Kenneth Noland and Howard Mehring. The only artist after whom Steele titled one of these pictures, however, is Russo-French modernist Wassily Kandinksy.

Steele was born near Chicago and attended that city’s Art Institute, but spent much of his childhood in Scotland. In Washington, he was a respected art restorer whose own work embraced representational as well as abstract modes. This selection features a dozen bold color-field paintings from the second half of the 1960s, none of which appear closely aligned with the often gauzy pictures made by Noland, Mehring and their peers.

Steele’s late-’60s style is hard-edge and geometric, with dramatic contrasts between bright colors and large expanses of white or black. The impact is immediate, but closer inspection reveals subtle twists, including seemingly white areas that are actually mottled in multiple hues and curved boundary lines in such Popsicle colors as pink and lime green. These touches energize European-style formalism with sparks of American Pop.

The show’s other set of works, mostly from the late ’50s or early ’60s and shaped by a post-collegiate sojourn in rural Scotland, are very different. These smaller, textured painting-collages draw their imagery from nature and incorporate such 3-D materials as ash, sand and putty. The overwhelmingly earth-toned pictures don’t have the kick of the later paintings. But a few of them — notably “Standing Owl” — attain a canny harmony of primal subject and primitivist style. They have an out-of-time quality that evokes rustic Britain more than either Chicago or Washington.

John Alexander Steele: Chicago/Washington Through Aug. 21 at Fred Schnider Gallery, 888 N. Quincy St., Arlington. Open by appointment.

Colors of Confidence

Most of the pictures in “Colors of Confidence,” Pazo Fine Art’s impressive mini-survey of late-20th-century D.C. abstraction, were made after 1970. But a few date from the period of John Alexander Steele’s “Chicago/Washington” color-field paintings, and that’s not the only overlap between the two shows. Pazo’s selection includes several examples of Washington colorism at its most geometric.

Visitors are first greeted by the dark-toned “Magenta Double,” one of Mehring’s paintings made of canvases dappled with a single hue and then cut and pasted into symmetrical arrays of multicolor blocks and bars. Also on exhibit are three Thomas Downing paintings, one of which has never been shown publicly, of dots in contrasting tints. The rounds are stained into raw canvas in the usual Washington-colorist manner, but plotted in tidy patterns. Only slightly looser is a Paul Reed painting whose circular layout of lavender petals is framed by hot-colored, regularly shaped triangles. (Reed, longest-lived of the show’s eight artists, died in 2015.)

In the two more-complex Downing paintings, some of the dots are white, which accentuates the canvas’s muted tan and sets off the circles of blue, green and shades of brown. White dots also pop from the orderly yet gently eccentric “Share,” a typically mesmerizing composition by Simon Gouverneur, one of two artists of color in the show. The other is Carroll Sockwell, whose gray-toned drawing suggests a meticulous rendering of a titled rectangle as seen through cracked glass. (Sockwell was a D.C. native, while Gouverneur spent just the last decade of his life here. Sadly, each committed suicide, just two years apart in the early ’90s.)

Tom Green’s 1997 “Sightings” (the most recent piece) and Jacob Kainen’s 1972 “Secretary General” play soft color against sketchily defined shapes, to vastly different effects. The most fluid picture is Willem de Looper’s untitled 1975 one, whose layered bands of tan and brown suggest water and earth at the same time. The Dutch-born D.C. painter’s version of a stripe painting appears as primordial as it does modern.

Colors of Confidence Through Aug. 22 at Pazo Fine Art, 4228 Howard Ave., Kensington. Open by appointment.

Ikard and Gamma

For a child, everyday furniture can serve as recreational equipment. To recapture the feeling of such bedroom romps, Luke Ikard builds bunk beds, both as models and at full scale, to which he attaches playground-style yellow enclosed chutes. These are the physical centerpieces of “Sometimes, We Remember Our Bedrooms,” Ikard’s collaboration with Joshua Gamma at Hamiltonian Artists. The two artists are based in Baltimore but have roots elsewhere, which is particularly important to Gamma’s contribution.

That is the show’s soundtrack, drawn from mix tapes that Gamma made as a preteen in the 1990s after his family moved from Monterey, Calif., to Morgan City, La. (His father was in the Coast Guard.) The range of music, mostly recorded from radio broadcasts, is wide, but heavy on mid-’60s material.

“This was back when local radio truly was local radio,” Gamma said in an email. “And for better and worse, south-central Louisiana at the time was in some ways about 30 years behind the rest of the country.”

Although Gamma was initially alienated by his new home, he found much to like there — and in the songs he heard on oldies radio. “The Utopian idealism of the ’60s was definitely appealing to me as a 12-year-old,” he noted.

Some of Gamma’s actual tapes, with their exuberantly hand-lettered text, are placed on display atop stark white lozenges that hang in midair, suspended by chains that are the same yellow as the chutes. The contrast between handmade and machine-tooled is essential to the show. Ikard’s work is clean and streamlined, a cross between minimalism and Danish Modern, while Gamma’s is funky and one-of-a-kind. One artist constructs a pristine space; the other fills it with memories.

Luke Ikard with Joshua Gamma: Sometimes, We Remember Our Bedrooms Through Aug. 21 at Hamiltonian Artists, 1353 U St. NW.

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