KATZEN ART CENTER MUSEUM
June 9 through August 12, 2012
A review by Nancy Ungar of THE CONSTANT ARTIST,
an exhibit of Paul Feinberg’s photographs of nine DC based artists early and later in their careers, with interviews and early and late artworks by the artists. Ungar is a retired Gazette art critic.
While most DC area artists up and run away to NYC when the going gets good, some of the best stick around. The work of nine of these tried and true painters, documented at the beginning of their careers and recently by photographer Paul Feinberg can be seen in “The Constant Artist” at American University’s Katzen Center through August 12.
While style and renown may differ, the level of technical skill and artistry is reliably high. Sam Gilliam, part of the DC Color School, is represented by two abstractions that are more similar than not despite the almost-30-year separation of their production. Artists Manon Cleary and Rebecca Davenport are noteworthy for the consistently stark realism of their figurative work. The paintings of Margarida Kendall Hull and Lisa Montag Brotman provide commentary on the loss of innocence; while Fred Folsom’s mural-sized painting, “Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-G0 Club)” of 1987 revels in debauchery.
Margarida Kendall Hull paints with the expertise and polish of a Renaissance master, even adopting the Church’s triptych format topped by reliquary boxes to to her apocalyptic vision. The central figure in the eponymous “Eve” gazes with complete innocence at the viewer as she offers her ripe red delicious apple; it is held upside down, revealing the indention left after the flower was removed. A snake (the literal fashion boa) coils around her neck. But the scene behind her is less that of a Boschian hell than that of an earth which has succumbed to devastation by man. Ruined landscape is scorched and burning; drained of water, a large fish crawls with two stunted legs upon dry land and appears to shout in open-mouthed anger; shrouded corpses lie in the road and civilization’s remnant is a distant skyline. Eve is beautiful and pure and yet she, the symbol of our culture, invites her own doom.
Lisa Montag Brotman’s work, both early and recent, also treats blighted innocence. In the middle of a large candy-colored field of wriggling phallic coral, a pre-pubescent girl strides confidently towards a mysteriously hooded amorphous form. It’s (his) shape is as unclear as her future or the stormy sky, and she faces him alone.
Tom Green is unique in that he poses very similar questions in 1968 and 2012 but answers the question in different ways. The ’68 “Sultana” is reminiscent of the shaped canvases (think Stella) and minimalist tonality of that era. Delicately executed in graphite and oil pastel, Green’s tall, cool, architecturally clean form emanates an evanescent light; it opens wide at it’s center with a neat vertical space, a doorway, that entices the viewer. The work is elegant, monumental and authoritative and seems complete until you view the 2012 “Passage.” It is only then that you realize that you have been invited to enter only to hit the solidity of a white gallery wall.
“Passage” is similarly enticing, but the journey it presents is difficult and the end unknown. The large vertical canvas is painted to represent a life-sized irregular gray stone wall. At its center is a narrow jagged vertical opening leading to black nothingness. You know it will be almost impossible to get through to whatever lies beyond, and the passage is sure to be injurious. Yet it is a secret, inviolable world that draws you in.
Green has become more adept at inviting, even compelling, you to enter his world. At the same time a new, perhaps mocking, attitude towards this melodrama is signaled by the incongruity of scalloping around the four edges of the painting. Is Green hinting that life is no more than a page in a scrapbook?
Clark V. Fox has stayed true to form in adopting a pop look to his portraits. while Joseph White has dramatically changed his style. The latter’s work is represented by a colorful lyrical abstraction from 1967 and a muted, sterile rendering of the lower half of a revolving door on K Street from 2006. White has come to earth, moving from a raucous ride in a fantasy space to the hard edge of DC politics.