Artist Kevin MacDonald was a Silver Spring native, and although he frequented the D.C. downtown arts scene, the ’burbs were a constant inspiration. So it’s fitting that a print titled “Suburban Apotheosis” is the only piece shared by two current MacDonald retrospectives, “The Tension of a Suspended Moment” at the American University Museum and “Transcendence” at Adamson Gallery.
The print features identical white houses — essentially boxes save for their pitched roofs — receding from view along a tree-lined street. It’s exemplary of the artist’s style: cool and flat, careful and precise, with just a twist of the surreal.
MacDonald, who died a decade ago at age 59, is known for his landscapes and interiors, blank yet warm, drawn with colored pencil and impeccable detail. There are many examples of this in the two shows. But both demonstrate that MacDonald’s world was not bounded, stylistically or philosophically, by Eastern Avenue and the Beltway.
“The Tension of a Suspended Moment” is named for a drawing of an abandoned car and also for the foreboding implicit in so many MacDonald pictures. The artist didn’t populate his street, cafe and cul-de-sac scenes, and the lack of humans suggests that something has gone wrong. But maybe absence is just absence, not calamity.
Among the earliest works in the museum show are two 1976 drawings of lamps, so lightly rendered that subject and foreground are barely distinguishable. It’s as if MacDonald had made his way back to realism via such austere genres as minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. He wasn’t alone; Washington experienced a quiet boom in representational art in the 1970s and ’80s. Some have suggested that the art resulting from that boom was a neorealist extrapolation of the Washington Color School’s sparse abstractions.
MacDonald didn’t draw just bare rooms and empty blocks for the rest of his too-short life. Both “Transcendence” and “Tension” include prints and oil paintings, and “Tension” collects experiments with washes of acrylic pigments as well as tea and coffee. These are featured on a whole wall of pictures of houses and small structures — an entire Mr. MacDonald’s neighborhood.
In the ’90s, MacDonald translated Renaissance canvases into lush pencil and pastel drawings. His 1998 drawing of a bird, ornamented with gold leaf, draws from East Asian art. He also made forays into cubism, notably with “Dinner at Herb’s,” a large oil that depicts friends at the Dupont Circle restaurant of art patron Herb White. This one almost has people in it, except the four diners are represented by stylized Balinese masks.
The “Dinner” painting fits into two subcategories. In addition to its cubist qualities, it’s one of the pictures in which MacDonald revealed, sort of, his private world. Although his subjects tended toward the archetypal, he sometimes depicted colleagues and favored haunts. One hushed drawing portrays the Urban Verbs, a noisy art-punk band, in the form of their musical equipment.
That picture is in “Twisted Teenage Plot,” an adjacent exhibition of work by people who participated in the local art and rock scenes, mostly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s named for a sometime band in which MacDonald played alongside such artists as Joe White, Judith Watkins Tarrt and Clark Fox (then known as Michael Clark). Later, the Plot collaborated with two former Urban Verbs, Robert Goldstein and Robin Rose.
“Plot” doesn’t distinguish the artists who dabbled in music from the musicians who tinkered with art — or the few who had significant success at both, notably Rose and former Razz singer Michael Reidy. (For the record, Reidy and I are longtime friends.)
The selection includes a guitar embellished by Martin “Kim” Kane, the auteur of the Slickee Boys, who lasted longer and traveled farther than most D.C. bands of the era. There are abstracts by Rose, two minimal canvases by Steve Ludlum (who had a brief tenure with the Plot) and a drawing by Michael Barron, guitarist for Tiny Desk Unit (whose best-known alumnus is NPR musical tastemaker Bob Boilen).
Among the most amusing entries are two deft Reidy drawings that incorporate pencil sketches by his pal MacDonald. One is a portrait of MacDonald, combined with a critique of the piece he’s holding. “Press harder” and “too sensitive,” gripe Reidy’s annotations.
Such playful complaints may have pushed MacDonald toward other subjects and media, yet he never entirely left suburbia. Among his later series were “Mysteries of Silver Spring” (one of the works is in “Tension”) and tightly framed views of pools and lakes (six of which are in “Transcendence”). Although the latter are as devoid of people as the artist’s earlier work, there’s no tension. Perhaps it’s the calming effect of water, but these pictures seem not empty but serenely complete.
The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/museum.
Dates: Through May 29.
Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW. 202-232-0707. adamsongallery.com.
Dates: Through May 21.