The lush, the harsh and the buoyant. No, it's not a new soap opera but rather a convenient way of summing up three figurative art shows that have brightened up the otherwise glum inauguration season in Washington, D.C.
The exhibitions -- one taking us back 400 years to Europe and others fresh out of local studios -- provided a stimulating ride for fans of non-abstract mark-making. The menu included faces and fabrics so true you wanted to gasp, cartoon monsters that repulsed yet endeared, and come-hither eclectic adventures.
Ter Borch at the NGA
The idea of a Gerhard ter Borch show may not sit well with everyone. I mean, who wants to spend time viewing homely ladies in bonnets, stiff-collared burgomeisters and cows in a barnyard? But the 30 works that were recently on view at the National Gallery of Art in ter Borch's first major U. S. exhibition were worth every minute. The show was at the NGA, Nov. 7, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005, and opens soon at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Feb. 27-May 22, 2005.
The artist (1617-1681) surprised at every turn. A horse's ass (no other way to put it) and a Rembrandt-moody depiction of hooded Spanish flagellants in bloodied KKK-type cloaks started the show with a masterful sense of composition, light and surface. Ter Borch's small scale came off as brave and refreshing. And the pull of Diego Velazquez' work, which Ter Borch saw in Spain, kept figures in the foreground and backgrounds minimal.
Traveling in 1648 to Germany to record the Treaty of Muenster, ter Borch commemorated its ratification, which ended an 80-year-long Spanish-Dutch war, with a tiny (less than 17 x 14 in.) multi-figure painting on copper. Some 40 men stand in a luminous, nuanced frieze that never lets up in its reading of psychology under the scrutiny of history.
City museums in Europe are loaded with larger, mostly dull versions of this genre, but ter Borch's little gem lets us revel in intimacy, deft painting, and a collective, rather than individual, sense of portraiture. The bedrock impulse to bring a human face to history.
Conversely, ter Borch's genre scenes might seem frivolous. Created after the artist and his family settled into Vandeventer society, these high bourgeois dramas are suffused with unspoken emotions -- love, manners, comfort, sadness and unfulfilled desire. Titles tell the story: The Suitor's Visit, Gallant Conversation. Attendants, dogs, lutes, delicate china and fine furniture emerge from the darkness to witness the central event.
Then there's the satin. The way ter Borch paints it outdoes John Singleton Copley by a mile. To rephrase one catalogue essay title, his satin is a miracle. Any and every painter, depictive or not, should study a ter Borch dress.
Despite the visual seduction and apparent "lite" content of the scenarios, which can border on the formulaic, the works have a tense, oddly disturbing quality, not unlike Vermeer. Who will be happy? What will happen? Dare we leave this room? If we do, what will we find? Even Lady at her Toilet, ca. 1660, which first seems a luscious vanity piece a la Titian (a lady, two attendants and a dog hover at a table where a mirror reflects her face), makes you feel uneasy because everyone, including the dog, looks very, very nervous.
In a recent conversation, photo curator Merry Forresta compared this edge to the preppie melodramas of photographer Tina Barney. Haute psycho-genre in contemporary painting -- cool idea.
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At David Adamson Gallery across Pennsylvania Avenue was Kelly Towles' wraparound installation at of paintings -- some done large-scale directly on the wall -- featuring a cartoony character dubbed Underdog. Booting the bourgeoisie into the junk heap, this show, which closed at the end of January 2005, jolted the senses with the screech of 21st century street life. The works were quite reasonably priced at $200-$1,500.
Towles' Underdog bears a closer resemblance to Vaughn Bode's Cheech Wizard that it does to its TV-cartoon namesake. Towles' figure's primary attributes are a perennial slouch, boxing gloves, puffy eyes, broken teeth, pincer hands, a peg leg and the sad-eyed, depressing look of a drunk who thinks life is fine just the way it is, thanks.
In Adamson's spacious main gallery, several giant Underdogs washed over 15-foot walls in drooling acid colors. Within the 36 digital pigment prints and ink-on-wood and mixed media compositions hung on the walls, sizes and formats were all over the map. Some had the character staring out from lacquered log slices strung together salon style with knotted twine. Others, incorporating scrambled spray paint, showed Underdog fighting and posing on enlarged U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail stickers.
The show had an ominous, aggressive aura -- a startling, monumental pit bull snarls from one work, and in two others, secret police with firearms take aim straight into the room.
Towles' art lingers long in the memory, not just because of the unsettling presentation, but because the physically and psychologically damaged star of the show invokes genuine empathy. In a certain sense, the work updates 1980s graffiti art by Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring and terror-driven painting by Robert Birmelin and Leon Golub. Adamson's clients seem to be responding to all this: each of 23 one-of-a-kind works sold, and the 13 prints (in editions from 7 to 15) were almost gone at last count.
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The hot market also smiled on Ian Whitmore's recent exhibition at Fusebox, several blocks north along the 14th Street corridor. The 14 paintings, all dated 2004 (and priced $2,500-$10,000), took viewers on a sophisticated romp through cultural history -- including a Franois Boucher-inspired boudoir (Belletriste), bow-tying birds a la Walt Disney's Cinderella (Stand-in), a tumbling diagonal invoking Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (Woodsy), a hopelessly kitsch donkey in encaustic (Toiler), Albert Finney as Tom Jones (Westernized), an Eadweard Muybridge motion study of a horse (Bridge) and some Gene Davis-esque wallpaper stripes (Run Through). Bright reds and blues in gestural strokes and an occasional burst of spray paint add to the mix.
This is no-holds-barred, pleasure-driven fine arts for postmodern tastes, or if you want to label it neo-rococo, that works too. The paintings generously served up a potpourri of personal intuition and art history at the service of visual delight. More often than not, "big" ideas also shine through.
Pox, for instance, is a large-scale, wall-mounted takeoff on those clover-shaped Gian Battista Tiepolo ceiling frescos where clouds and foreshortened figures make you think about Resurrection, the Apocalypse and other life-and-death constructs of organized religion. Hot red abstract brushstrokes are folded into an 18th century stew of limbs, fabrics and faces so that we, the viewers, float in and out of fantasies ranging from violence to floatation to serenity to roller coasters. Escapism is not a bad thing considering the current political climate.
Gentler on the spirit, Baubles is a tiny egg tempera and encaustic composition of birds, gros-grain ribbon and random paint marks that dance together on a spare white ground, a paean to prettiness and spring. Death from Above is Whitmore's redo of Albert Pinkham Ryder's much smaller Dead Bird, ca. 1879, in the Phillips Collection. Whitmore's deceased creature is painted flat blue with black outlines, as in a cartoon, and rests amid decomposing plantlife on a dark forest floor. Ryder's depiction, by contrast, is economic and straightforward. Both images weep over the reality of death; Whitmore distances it with childhood innocence.
The show, titled "Mirror Mirror," includes many painting-to-painting interconnections and in-jokes, such as a faux-unicorn and donkey in paintings on opposite walls. There's a hint of Cecily Brown "doing" de Kooning here and there, which is OK by me. More problematic is the ill-modeled and chalky treatment of figures in Belletriste, Bridge and Westernized, which brings an aura of disappointment to where there is mostly promise.
Whitmore's work exemplifies how powerfully an artist can explore ideas before your very eyes. Not just any idea but how to put the figure at the service of paint to wake up the senses and imagination. In Washington's early winter season, he had good company.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.