Art’s oldest subject, nature, continues to beguile, motivate and sometimes awe. But in the cellphone-camera era, simply documenting blossoms and sunrises has become too easy. This compels new and diverse strategies, two of which can be seen in very different shows in local galleries. Christopher French abstracts landscapes into color patterns; William Newman retains nature’s forms while streamlining its textures.
A longtime Corcoran College of Art and Design instructor, Newman was once a painter — and a mischievous one. He was known for murals that played on the tradition of classical nudes, and that offended some of the town’s stuffier residents. Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 30 years ago, Newman has turned to more conceptual work, relying on assistants to bring the ideas to fruition. The sculptures in his latest show, “Ouroboros,’’ were inspired by the shapes of fruits and vegetables grown on his farm near Washington but fabricated by metalworkers in Beijing.
An ouroboros is a circular representation of a serpent devouring its own tail, a symbol of ongoing destruction and renewal used in many ancient cultures. The ouroboros in Newman’s exhibition, which opens Saturday, are less metaphysical, at least in origin. They’re modeled on a snake gourd, one of several vegetal shapes rendered literally — and yet transformed — in the artist’s recent work.
First crafted in clay, the pear-, pumpkin- and gourd-derived pieces are cast in stainless steel, which is then polished to a reflective shine. (You could check your makeup, or tie your tie, in the larger of the two metal pumpkins.) Like Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,’’ the massive sculpture that’s become a Chicago landmark, Newman’s work combines austere form with a fun-house mirror quality that provides a sense of play.
The artist gave the pieces such titles as “Tzimtzum,’’ “Bake-zori’’ and “Sampo’’ (terms from, respectively, Kabbalah, Japanese legend and Finnish mythology). But the alchemy being practiced here is purely aesthetic. Newman takes the shapes of soft, rough things that quickly rot and memorializes them as hard, shiny objects that could last for millenniums. Nature, like a snake eating its own tail, endures by regenerating itself; art freezes objects permanently, sleek if perhaps too perfect.
The show also includes one sinuous sculpture rendered in wood, a precursor to the steel pieces, and several works cast in bronze using the lost-wax process. These include an animal skull and some smaller objects that suggest decayed vertebrae. Evoking the longer-lasting detritus of natural regeneration, these craggy, seemingly weathered objects contrast the flawless lines and surfaces of the burnished sculptures.
In the photographs in the show’s catalogue, many of the ouroboros are posed outdoors, on tree stumps or in thick grass. Newman’s glossy sculptures look entirely at home in the modernist white cocoon of the Adamson Gallery, but collectors who buy a “Sampo’’ or “Tzimtzum’’ might consider placing it in the garden. The ouroboros abstract nature yet could hardly exist without it.
While Newman’s new work celebrates its real-world inspiration, French’s recent abstract paintings are more discreet. Indeed, the work in the artist’s “Inventions and Recollections,’’ at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, can easily be dismissed as variations on a handful of motifs. Until you look more closely.
Although French doesn’t employ the thickly worked paint that characterized abstract expressionism, his work is not one-dimensional. There are depths as well as patterns in these three series, which employ loose brush strokes and unexpected layers within the tightly plotted arrangements.
A former Washingtonian who now lives in a rural area of Long Island, French has become a sort of landscape painter. He also uses a tool that’s not immediately obvious from his art: a camera. His “Remains of the Day’’ series arranges colored dots on painted-over Braille paper (long a motif in the artist’s work). The backdrop is a single hue, and no color is repeated in any row. The approach seems almost mathematical, but each painting bears a particular date, and its palette is derived from the colors in a photograph taken on that day. All that abides from that moment, in other words, are the many shades captured through the lens.
French doesn’t vary the format, either in the “Remains’’ canvases or in the paintings filled with variously colored versions of the same hard-edged squiggle. (It’s derived, the artist explains, from part of the “T’’ in the New York Times logo.) And yet, while the forms are precise — the painter uses stencils to ensure that — the choice of colors doesn’t follow a preordained design. Because he avoids repeating hues, French calls his approach “looseness at the start, and negotiation with myself at the end.’’ It’s this tension between the mechanical and the intuitive that gives the paintings a fascination that grows with prolonged viewing. “My goal is to slow you down,’’ French says.
The show’s most recent works, done on paper with several kinds of paint, are more immediately engaging. They’re just color, lines and dots, but because they have active centers, they draw the eye in a way that the pattern paintings don’t. These works also rely on the camera: They’re abstracted views of flowers, including zinnias.
That’s no more evident than the landscape elements in the “Remains of the Day’’ series, but the floral form seems to have sparked both energy and spontaneity. The curved lines that lead to the core are meticulous — French uses a bendable form to guarantee that — but they converge almost giddily. One of the flower paintings, “Net Effect,’’ even includes painterly brushwork that’s not contained within a circumscribed dot. French may never entirely abandon his systematic style of composition, but if nature has driven him a little bit wilder, his flower paintings suggest that’s not a bad thing.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
by William Newman is on view April 9 through May 14 at Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW, Suite 202. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Visit http://adamsongallery.jimdo.com or call 202-232-0707.
by Christopher French is on view through April 30 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.marshamateykagallery.com or call 202-328-0088.