By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2003; Page WE45
"By Michael O'Sullivan, reprinted with permission from the Washington Post"
Isabel wasn't the only storm to hit town in September. Rousing itself from its traditional late-summer torpor, the gallery season began in earnest this month with a blast of art openings from all directions. When the rains subsided, we took an unscientific survey of the fallout -- at least at those galleries that hadn't closed due to weather.
Up in Montgomery County, of all places, you'll find some of the most interesting debris. Creative Partners Gallery, a cooperative space in Bethesda, is hosting an exhibition of work by the nine finalists in the Trawick Prize competition. Established this year by local businesswoman and community activist Carol Trawick, the inaugural juried contest handed out a total of $14,000 in prize money to four area artists: Richard Cleaver (first prize), James Huckenpahler (second prize), Linn Meyers (third prize) and Jose Ruiz (winner of the "young artist" award for artists born after June 2, 1973, sponsored by the nearby Fraser Gallery).
Better known in his home town of Baltimore, Cleaver makes bead- and wire-encrusted figurative sculptures that suggest slightly demented religious icons or folk-art totems. Odd yet oddly striking, they cry out for more breathing room than this cramped storefront gallery can give them. However, my favorite works in this show, which includes a surprising number of video pieces, are Ruiz's witty, oversize "wall labels," which identify nonexistent works with such titles as "What You See Is What You Get." In a sly conceptual joke, of course, they refer to nothing but themselves.
Bethesda is off to a good start with what could turn out to be a quite prestigious prize. Now all it needs is a roomier gallery to showcase the winners.
Also in Bethesda is "De Aqui y de Alla," Fraser Gallery's unintended nod to Hispanic Heritage Month (an accident of timing, insists gallery co-owner F. Lennox Campello, who says he did not notice the official designation for Sept. 15 to Oct. 15). The group show, whose title means "From Here and From There" in Spanish, includes work by 15 contemporary Cuban artists and artists of the Cuban diaspora. Strongest among them are Elsa Mora and Marta Maria Perez Bravo, two photographers whose work involves a personal, almost hermetic symbolism -- Perez Bravo's based on the religious practice of Santeria, Mora's inspired by grief over the suicide of a friend and artistic collaborator -- but one that resonates profoundly even when dimly understood.
A bit farther upcounty, Carolyn Jean mines similar emotional territory at Rockville's Glenview Mansion. With sculpture, found-art assemblages and prints made from photographs of old dresses, Jean's "Soundings From Home II" probes memory, longing and the notion that objects that remain after a person has died or has ceased to use them retain a bit of that person's aura. Walking through Jean's show feels a bit like poking around a junk shop or someone's attic, albeit a very carefully orchestrated one. Capitalizing on her experience as a writer and filmmaker, the implicit narrative of Jean's often altarlike installations invites powerful and unexpected emotions.
Renee Stout is another artist who knows how to shape narrative, evoking strong feeling out of the half-glimpsed detritus of an imagined life. "Eyes of Fatima," a small and thematically cohesive exhibition in the back room of Hemphill Fine Arts that incorporates sculpture, photography, neon signage, mixed-media assemblage, printmaking and drawing, tells the story -- in jagged shards, not chapters -- of a faith healer/psychic/conjure woman whose life, and whose clients' lives, seem to be littered with broken hearts and the yearning for the power to control the chaos of existence.
This month also brings an overdue resurrection of sorts of a few local stalwarts. Washington-based painter Jean Meisel, whose work ranges from Willem de Looper-esque abstraction to serene still lifes, is being feted with a handsome retrospective covering 45 years. Organized by the Washington Arts Museum and curated by dealer Barbara Fendrick at the Edison Place Gallery, a new exhibition space on the ground floor of the Pepco building downtown, Meisel's show is a reminder of the timelessness of a certain style of quintessentially Washingtonian art: well-ordered, pristine and relying on a subtle mastery of color manipulation that calls up sensations of place and mood.
D.C. Arts Center founder, arts patron and collector Herb White is also dredging up some memories (not to mention indulging his own eclectic taste) with "Herb's Choice," a two-man show at DCAC honoring a pair of his personal favorites, painter Joe White and sculptor David Mordini. White's cool, clean landscapes, both of the urban and rustic variety, share an attenuated aesthetic that only heightens, rather than dilutes, their air of unpopulated desolation.
Their cinematic power provides a nice contrast to Mordini's monumental wooden heads. Unlike Mordini's work from the mid-1990s -- an earlier, more realistic series of carved-wood body parts that made a bit of a name for the young artist before he left Washington for a brief sojourn in Chicago -- his current crop of "Disfigure" busts is a little freakier, a little more reminiscent of the bulb-headed Talosians from the "Menagerie" episode of "Star Trek" than to Homo sapiens. Alluding to their alien, and rather menacing, physiognomy, Mordini tapped his own noggin at a recent opening, noting that they "come much more from in here than from out there."
Finally, speaking of heads, mark your calendar for Tuesday night's opening of "Intimate," an exhibition of pocket-size yet highly accomplished portraits by painter Allison Miner at the Nevin Kelly Gallery. A relative newcomer to U Street NW, lawyer-turned-art dealer Kelly will be spotlighting Miner's awkwardly up-close renditions of her lover's face and those of other members of the city's gay community. Working in a thick impasto that resolves into a kind of topographical abstraction if you stare at them long enough, Miner's tightly framed, often unflattering faces are reminiscent -- not just stylistically, but in terms of their perverse tenderness -- of British painter Jenny Saville's grandly grotesque nudes, albeit at the other end of the size scale.
De Aqui y de Alla ("From Here and From There") at Fraser Gallery Bethesda, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., 301-718-9651, to Oct. 8.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company