About 50 years ago, our town was home to an art movement of significance, the Washington Color School. (How much significance? That’s still a matter of debate.) No subsequent group of local artists has had the same cohesion — or enjoyed as much attention — as Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and their cohorts. They redefined abstract expressionism with simple forms and new techniques, staining raw canvas with diluted acrylic paint, sometimes poured rather than brushed.
Now, local curator J.W. Mahoney has identified a new faction of D.C. artists, and assembled a formidable survey of its work. “Signals: Art From a New Washington School” is a large show, with contributions by more than 40 artists that overflow from the D.C. Arts Center’s exhibition space into the former Cafe Lautrec space across the street. Perhaps a smaller array would have illustrated Mahoney’s argument better.
The exhibition comes with a five-point manifesto, which makes a number of not necessarily linked claims. The one that seems to be central is that Washington artists are “speculative symbolists.” Some of the people in the show who might merit the classification include Simon Gouverneur, Tom Green, Carol Brown Goldberg, Lee Haner, Rosemary Feit Covey and Jack Rasmussen. But most of the chosen pieces aren’t such a good fit for the term, and a few of the supposed symbolists are not part of any ongoing movement. Green died in September, Gouverneur in 1990.
Rather than attempt to interpret each piece as an example of a tendency, it might be more fruitful to treat the show simply as an overview of Washington art today. It’s a diverse, if not bleeding-edge, selection that ranges from deft portraits in oil (Teresa Oaxaca’s ominous “Doll Maker,” Margarida Kendall’s neo-Renaissance “Ave Eva”) to crisp digital photographic prints (Richard Dana’s computer-generated forms, two epic skyscapes by Roberto Bocci). One contemporary-art trend that barely figures in Mahoney’s schema is video. The single video piece is Pat Goslee’s “Pretty Maiden,” an elegant semi-abstraction of body and water that undulates from Meridian Hill Park to the sea.
The sculptures seems particularly strong, if not thematically aligned. Some pieces toy with form and material: John Dreyfuss, who’s known for metalwork, made an anvil out of plaster. Tazuko Ichikawa took a sleek wooden rectangle and left one half to appear natural while cutting and painting the other side into black slices that seem to be falling. Greg Hannan’s “Logo,” made mostly of acrylic and urethane, resembles a natural form, yet is sufficiently alien to be enigmatic. Renee Butler’s “Aphairesis” is a pair of frosted-glass circles, suggesting presence and absence.
Are these speculative symbolist works? Perhaps, but that seems less important than their craft and vision. “Signals” demonstrates that there’s plenty going on in Washington’s art scene, even if appreciating it is easier than naming it.
What’s the most important word in “Washington Color School” — “Washington” or “color”? For local artists, the so-called school’s fame can be both a goad and a burden. But the majority of the six artists whose work is included in Long View Gallery’s “Color Schooled” reside far from D.C., in Chicago or Kansas City, Mo. The only ones who live under Morris Louis’s and Gene Davis’s shadows are J. Jordan Bruns, who works in Glen Echo, and Robert Stuart, who’s based in Staunton. And they’re not the most color-schooled artists in the show.
At first glance, the two who seem closest to the Color School aesthetic are Gian Garofalo and Laura Berman. The former makes large-stripe paintings that recall Davis’s; the latter is showing a monoprint whose single-color teardrops overlap to yield blended hues, something like the more complex layering of Louis’s “Veil” paintings.
The similarities are evident, but so are the differences. Garofalo’s stripes are actually drips of plastic-based pigment, which yield a thick and shiny surface. Where the Color School was known for its translucency, Garofalo’s “Tutti Frutti” is opaque and nearly sculptural, with stalactites of solidified paint dangling from the bottom. As for Berman’s print, it’s tidy and carefully plotted, without the scale or improvisational quality of Louis’s work.
The other work is even further out of school. Stuart also does stripes, but they’re loosely rendered in oil, wax and strips of velvet. Betty Cleeland fills canvases with circles or ovals in complementary colors — mostly red, white, blue and pink — with results that seem as much hot pop art as cool early-’60s abstraction. Bruns’s and Martina Nehrling’s works are colorful but too glossy and baroque for this particular clan. That’s not to say it’s unappealing; all of these artists are skilled and inventive. But the one who comes closest to Louis’s zenlike serenity, if not his technique, is Stuart.
These days, when Hollywood needs a foreign desert, it’s likely to choose Morocco. But in the 1960s and ’70s, camera crews often headed to the other side of the Mediterranean: Almeria, in southeast Spain. Washington photographer Mark Parascandola may be the only American who still travels to the region with professional photo gear. Rather than shoot movies, however, he makes photographs of the places where “Cleopatra” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” were filmed.
Parascandola, who has family connections to the region, is exhibiting 11 of his evocative large-format pictures at the Embassy of Spain. “Once Upon a Time in Almeria” gives equal billing to the scenery and the now-tattered sets, sometimes destroying illusions. “Oasis,” for example, shows a place that looks like Spain, not the bit of the Arabian peninsula it impersonated in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Occasionally, modernity intrudes: In “Aqaba,” another “Lawrence” location, what appears to be a new resort hotel is under construction. Most of the vistas are unpopulated, however, and that absence gives the impeccably detailed photos an eerie sense of a bygone civilization: a lost race of American cowboys that vanished into the rocky terrain. All that remains are abandoned, dilapidated buildings under vast, often ominous skies. And the movies that were filmed there.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Nov. 25 at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW and 2431 18th St. NW; 202-462-7833; www.dcartscenter.org.
on view through Dec. 31 at Long View Gallery, 1234 Ninth St. NW; 202-232-4788; www.longviewgallery.com .
on view through Nov. 15 at the Embassy of Spain, 2375 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-728-2334; www.spainculture.us.