The traditional way to learn realist painting is by copying Old Master canvases at museums such as the National Gallery of Art. That’s one of the places to which Bradley Stevens transports viewers via “Museum Studies II: Honoring the Female Perspective.” His approach is sly, which makes his Zenith Gallery show the most complex among the unusually large number of current local exhibitions of representational painting.
There’s some gentle taunting going on here. Stevens isn’t content to establish that he can duplicate the pictures of pre-modern artists such as John Singer Sargent. He also demonstrates that he can reproduce them from various angles — not simply straight on — while also depicting the galleries in which they hang and the visitors contemplating them. These admirers, as the show’s title specifies, are mostly female, sometimes with children in tow.
To view Stevens’s paintings is to look at people who are looking, and to ponder art about art. Stevens also shares with us his fascination with light, both within and around the canvases, and with architectural space. One of the pictures is of the National Gallery’s rotunda, with no paintings in sight. Another picture wanders into Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg, whose sunlight and plantings are worthy competition for the sculpture. Gazing at art leads to the world, just as observing the world leads to art.
While people appear both within and outside the frame in Stevens’s studies, the human presence is suggested primarily by objects in “Still Happenings,” VisArts’ survey of still lifes by 12 contemporary artists. Most of the things that interest these East Coast (and mainly Washington-Baltimore) painters are made for and by people: a violin, a shiny Mylar balloon, a rumpled bed. But purpose is less significant than appearance in pictures that closely examine shape, shadow and light.
Lee Newman’s pictures of bones are rough and meaty, while Mark Karnes’s fluorescent lightbulb is sketchy and gray, ironically unilluminated. Christine Lafuente incorporates landscape by placing a vase full of flowers, a classic still-life subject, in the great outdoors. Maggie Siner, Erin Raedeke and Rosaline Moore all use fabric as a medium for conveying volume and materiality.
A softly rendered person lurks in Carlton Fletcher’s “Studio,” and a face can be glimpsed in that balloon in Daniel Riesmeyer’s “A Gift From an Unknown Sender.” More typically, though, these artists stand outside their compositions, revealing themselves only with brushstrokes.
Animal skulls are the most arresting objects in Nick Eisele’s “Oil + Light,” which is about to depart the Mansion at Strathmore. But the highlights of the Baltimore realist’s still lifes are, well, the highlights. Eisele has a flair for simulating reflections on shiny surfaces, whether the glistening skin belongs to a copper tankard or a green apple that glows amid beguiling aqua light.
Eisele is not altogether retro: His subjects include a cellphone and a plate of doughnuts. But most of his vignettes feature timeless subjects, rendered with the classical technique of applying fresh oil paint atop layers of pigment that are not fully dry. Even when the colors permanently fix, they still retain a sense of liquidity that evokes sunlight at play.
Just a few still lifes feature in “Three Figurative Painters,” in the atrium of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt. The subjects of Lora Moran-Collins’s pictures include flowers in close-up, ballet dancers and racing horses. Jillian Macedonia specializes in scenes on, near or underwater. Steve Schulman portrays people, often in crowds, from Washington to Paris to South Africa.
Moran-Collins’s style is the most realistic, and her oils have a pastel-like quality that suits pictures such as “Franklin Manor Morning,” in which birds flock on a beach at sunrise. Schulman’s and Macedonia’s paintings are more expressionistic and often large. Schulman distills faces to blocks of color, notably in one of his smaller pictures, the vibrant “Durban Boys.” Macedonia stresses motion and reflection, and uses dramatic vantage points. “The Deep Blue” depicts a swimmer from below, agitated water above and solid blue beneath. It’s as though the figure is surfacing from the abyss of color-field abstraction.
Bradley Stevens: Museum Studies II: Honoring the Female Perspective Through Feb. 2 at Zenith Gallery, 1429 Iris St. NW. Still Happenings: Contemporary Still Life Paintings Through Jan. 13 at Kaplan Gallery, VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. Nick Eisele: Oil + Light Through Jan. 6 at the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Three Figurative Painters Through Jan. 25 at U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, 6500 Cherrywood Lane, Greenbelt.
The photographs in “House of Champions” could be used to illustrate a variety of narratives, some of them conflicting, about Washington in the late 20th century. So Michael Horsley has left uncaptioned the images in his show at Gallery O on H. Rather than provide dates and addresses for the pictures, most of which were made in the 1980s, he has positioned them amid 3-D artifacts, such as battered window frames, videotapes of 1970s movies and a pin from a defunct local sightseeing company. Horsley is offering a tour of a lost feeling, not an analysis of what happened and why.
House of Champions was a scruffy boxing gym on Georgia Avenue NW, recalled here in a color photo. Horsley has previously exhibited mostly black-and-white pictures, but here he mixes color shots with his trademark monochromatic vignettes of a city in the messy midst of upscaling. Alongside quick glimpses of vanished or subsequently remade landmarks are multi-image montages of an auto repair shop and of Whitlow’s Restaurant, a vintage downtown eatery pushed to Arlington by redevelopment.
The show isn’t primarily a flashback to a working-class Washington whose inhabitants were being driven to the margins (and beyond). Horsley documents an in-between era, when the center city was colonized by artists and musicians. Veterans of the local arts scene will recognize locations such as D.C. Space, the music venue and artist hangout that’s now a Starbucks; WUST Music Hall, which became the 9:30 Club; and the former 5-and-10 that housed Washington Project for the Arts before it became Jaleo. Horsley surely didn’t anticipate that his work would someday be shown in a gallery on H Street NE. Yet his pictures indirectly document the process that made that possible.
Michael Horsley: House of Champions Through Jan. 11 at Gallery O on H, 1354 H St. NE.