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‘Under the Influence’ celebrates the Washington Color School

Bill Hill. “Scelci's Otherworldly Garden,” 2009-11. Oil on canvas; on view at the “Under The Influence” show at Catholic University. (Courtesy Bill Hill)

If this is March, it must be time for another consideration of the Washington Color School, the post-expressionist movement that began in D.C. in the late 1950s. Most of the first and second waves of Color School painters are now departed, but some artists continue to work in or near the tradition, while others still rouse themselves to assail it. Acolytes and a few antagonists are represented in “Under the Influence: Reverberations of the Washington Color School,” a show divided between two Brookland spaces, Salve Regina Gallery and Victor L. Selman Community Gallery.

The closest thing to homage are Barbara Januszkiewicz’s splashes of overlapping hues, which are named for songs or albums and recall the style of Morris Louis, one of the two best-known Colorists. But where Louis soaked thin acrylic pigment into untreated canvas — then a revolutionary method — Januszkiewicz employs watercolor on paper, sometimes intensifying the hues with a wax coating.

In fact, none of the “Influenced” artists emulates the techniques of Louis or his most celebrated cohort, Kenneth Noland. Where their work was characterized by luminosity and translucence, Ryan Carr Johnson and Samuel Scharf’s “Noland A.D.” is thick with gold from spray-paint cans punctured by bullets. It has more attitude than a Color School picture, but the pair’s pop-art blast at mid-20th-century abstraction is not exactly fresh.

Among the more striking entries are Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann’s “Cloud,” a large ink, acrylic and collage piece that stretches around a corner, and Bill Hill’s “Scelci’s Otherworldly Garden,” which suggests a meeting between two Color School precursors, Monet and Pollock. One intriguing surprise is the appropriateness of a painting by Robin Rose, who’s known neither for bright colors nor filmy textures. His “Cleave” isn’t a departure from his usual thickly layered style, but within the picture’s branch-like patterns are nearly bare areas that almost seem lighted from within. Rose didn’t imitate Louis or Nolan to make “Cleave” but the painting’s glow does suggest an enduring sensibility, if not a direct influence.

Under the Influence: Reverberations of the Washington Color School

On view through April 12 at Salve Regina Gallery at Catholic University, 620 Michigan Ave. NE, and Victor L. Selman Community Gallery at Brookland Artspace Lofts, 3305 8th St. NE; 202-319-5282;

John H. Brown Jr.

When his work was last seen at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, photographer John H. Brown Jr. was showing close-ups of leaves and vines, starkly silhouetted and often divided across multiple panels. Some examples (and expansions) of that strategy are in his current exhibition, “Out of Africa,” but the centerpiece is a grid of individual pictures. The “Serengeti Tree” series depicts individuals, each different but all similarly alone in the Tanzanian veldt.

His intention was to emphasize “the grand sculptural qualities of the foliage,” the local artist writes, but the Serengeti photos are less streamlined than his previous pictures. They’re sepia-toned, as if to imply the subjects’ age, and include grass, hills and the occasional animal. Except for one in which the background has been awkwardly removed, the photos disclose little evidence of digital manipulation. Where the “Vine Series” attempted to organize unruly flora, “Serengeti Tree” seems to acknowledge that nature’s sense of composition can scarcely be bettered.

John H. Brown Jr.:Out of Africa

On view through April 9 at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, 2026 R St. NW; 202-333-7970;

Alejandro Cartagena

Depicting manual laborers on their way to work, the photographs in Alejandro Cartagena’s “The Car Poolers” have an ethnographic aspect. The digital images were made in 2012 near San Pedro Garza Garcia, one of Mexico’s wealthiest cities, where numerous construction projects were underway. The men lie in truck beds, wedged sardine-style next to one another or amid building equipment, as if workers were essentially indistinguishable from ladders, shovels and lengths of wood. The subjects often wear clothing with American sports or corporate logos; one is wrapped in a Mickey Mouse blanket. A few read or use mobile phones, while many others sleep.

The pictures can be seen as a formal exercise. Each was shot from overhead at the same angle from the same overpass, and all share the vertical format of a small truck or a reclining person. Most of the vehicles are red, white or blue, and men often wear primary colors, their blue jeans and red sweatshirts contrasted by yellow safety helmets or orange traffic cones. There are three shots of what appears to be the same battered brown truck, each showing different occupants. Visually as well as sociologically, these photos depict variety within order, and people as both individuals and parts in the machinery.

The Car Poolers: Photographs by
Alejandro Cartagena

On view through April 6 at Spagnuolo Gallery, Georgetown University, 1221 36th St NW; 202-687-9206;

Rana Chalabi

A follower of mystical Sufi Islam, Rana Chalabi depicts whirling dervishes in her “Spiritual Journeys,” at Syra Arts. These paintings are impressionistic attempts to capture motion, evoking Yeats’s puzzle of how to “know the dancer from the dance.” The canvases that depict male twirlers are mostly black and white, sometimes accented by the red of a fez. The ones that show women feature abundant yellow, red and gold.

The way the Syrian Lebanese artist employs color reflects her interest in abstract ornamentation. The show includes a few small naturalistic cityscapes, rendered in earth tones. But the pictures of dancers include lacy white patterns that echo the ornamentation of Islamic architecture. Combining such motifs with representational art is not traditional, and neither is Chalabi’s calligraphy. She renders single Arabic letters in the style of East Asian brush painting, complete with a red stamped signature like those in Japanese art. Such cross-cultural touches are typical of Chalabi’s gently eclectic approach.

Rana Chalabi:Spiritual Journeys

On view through April 4 at Syra Arts, 1054 31st St. NW #A; 202-733-8199;

Mark Jenkins is a freelance writer.



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