Striv­ing for cozy and fa­mil­iar

‘In Uni­son’ mono­prints es­chew the cut­ting edge for the co­zily fa­mil­iar

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY KRISTON CAPPS Kriston.Capps@gmail.com

D.C. artists ex­hi­bi­tion at Kreeger Mu­seum es­chews the cut­ting edge.

One of the first mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions of the new year picks up ex­actly where last year left off.

“In Uni­son: 20 Washington, D.C., Artists,” a show of 20 prints that opened Satur­day at the Kreeger Mu­seum, fits with a num­ber of D.C. ret­ro­spec­tive shows that closed out last year. This show as­sem­bles works that sug­gest an older era of Washington art.

One prob­lem, though: The art is all new, and the show’s not in­tended to be a ret­ro­spec­tive.

Al­though “In Uni­son” pur­ports to bring to­gether clas­sic Washington artists in a spirit of im­pro­vi­sa­tion, most of the artists in­volved chose to play the same old song.

Sam Gil­liam, the painter who se­lected the artists for “In Uni­son,” has been at the heart of many re­flec­tive ex­hi­bi­tions. He was a sig­na­ture artist in the Washington Project for the Arts’ 35th an­niver­sary “Cat­a­lyst” ret­ro­spec­tive. The Cor­co­ran Gallery of Art could not do a show on the Washington Color School painters with­out in­clud­ing Gil­liam, who is fea­tured in the “Washington Color and Light” ex­hi­bi­tion, which opened in­Novem­ber.

This month, the artist will drape one of his sig­na­ture un­sup­ported can­vases around the Phillips Col­lec­tion’s el­lip­ti­cal stair­well to cel­e­brate that in­sti­tu­tion’s 90th an­niver­sary.

For this show, Gil­liam in­vited the 20 artists to cre­ate five mono­prints each at the Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity School of Art’s new bleed­ing-edge print stu­dio, which opened in Au­gust 2009. Kreeger Mu­seum Di­rec­tor Judy Green­berg, gal­lerist Mar­sha Mateyka and critic Clau­dia Rousseau then se­lected one rep­re­sen­ta­tive mono­print by each artist. Part of the goal of the show was to mark the school’s new stu­dio.

Yet only one artist, Howard Uni­ver­sity art pro­fes­sor Al Smith, con­trib­uted a dig­i­tal print. The oth­ers passedupthe stu­dio’s newer print­ing technology, in­stead us­ing the oil-based mono­type. The re­sults look very much like tra­di­tional paint­ing. Most of the prints in the show stem from the genre known loosely as Lyrical Ab­strac­tion, a col­or­ful and ex­pres­sive but decades-old mode of paint­ing in­flu­enced by Wass­ily Kandin­sky.

E. J. Mont­gomery’s “Cel­e­bra­tion II” is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple: a bright at­mos­phere, marked by a cloudy blend of salmon pinks and lime greens, over which the artist’s bold, scat­tered strokes seem to zip.

Sheila Crider’s “Sun­shine Booga­loo 2” is sim­i­lar in com­po­si­tion but bor­rows its pal­ette from the fiery end of the spec­trum. Crider andMont­gomery would have been pro­fes­sional artists when Lyrical Ab­strac­tion hit its stride.

Joyce Well­man also draws from that late Mod­ernist mode with “Five,” a screen­print fea­tur­ing a muted ab­stract at­mos­phere and squig­gly marks that could be ar­rows drawn in graphite.

Most of the prints in “In Uni­son” look las though they want to be oil paint­ings. If they were, they would be large — even vast. The totemic forms and char­ac­ters in prints by two na­tive Washington artists, Akili Ron An­der­son and bk. i am ART. adams, are cousin to myth­i­cal forms in the early, of­ten wall-size paint­ings by Jack­son Pol­lock and Mark Rothko. Con­tem­po­rary painter Su­san Rothen­berg also has con­tin­ued work­ing in this arena. The mytho­log­i­cal is well-ex­plored ter­ri­tory for ab­strac­tion, and at a re­stricted scale, these forms come across as meek.

Even if they are the same size, not all of the works in “In Uni­son” are so hum­ble. For “OPEN 3,” Wal­ter Kravitz (an artist whose works typ­i­cally oc­cupy whole rooms) took graphite, ink and char­coal to the sur­face of his oil-based mono­type. The re­sults are an­i­mated and could be the prod­uct of a wood­cut or even an an­i­ma­tion still, like the work of South African car­toon­ist Wil­liam Ken­tridge, al­though it looks like nei­ther. In­stead, “OPEN 3” looks like a print.

An­other stand out is a screen­print by Ge­orge Ma­son new me­dia pro­fes­sor Edgar En­dress that is drawn from a larger se­ries called “Cen­tropia.” The print has fig­u­ra­tive il­lus­tra­tions of well-met gentle­men, ad­ven­tur­ers and sol­diers whose heads have been re­placed by those of birds. These fig­ures could be Vic­to­rian vi­sions of the fal­con-headed Egyp­tian sun god, Ra. Wear­ing coats with tails and bear­ing mus­kets, En­dress’s bird men are ar­ranged in an en­cy­clo­pe­dic for­mat. Scat­tered frag­ments of pro­nun­ci­a­tion text bol­ster the im­pres­sion of a field guide.

En­dress’s screen­print is one of very few fig­u­ra­tive works in “In Uni­son,” and the only work that would have a home in to­day’s pop­u­lar print fo­rums. The cutesy com­bi­na­tion of na­ture and vin­tage dress would ap­peal to fans of Etsy, a Web hub for crafters. The print looks like some­thing that might be sold on 20x200, a pop­u­lar pro­gram run by New York’s Jen Bek­man Gallery, which sells fine-art prints in large edi­tions at low costs.

Un­like the other paint­ing-like prints in “In Uni­son,” En­dress’s “Cen­tropia” looks like a mass-pro­duced print. That’s a fea­ture, not a flaw, es­pe­cially given the DIY ethos that has emerged in Washington since its more painterly Color School­days. It comes as no sur­prise that En­dress, who was born in 1970, is at least a decade younger than most of the other artists in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

To its credit, “In Uni­son” as­sem­bles a num­ber of black Washington artists who were over­looked by the other Washington ret­ro­spec­tive shows. Per­haps the value of “In Uni­son” is that it gets an older gen­er­a­tion of artists out of their stu­dios and into a new work­shop en­vi­ron­ment. And the Kreeger Mu­seum lends com­fort­able con­text to the show: Kandin sky and Paul Klee, whose paint­ings hang out­side the ex­hi­bi­tion, could be the show’s pa­tron saints.

But if the pur­pose of the print show was to give an op­por­tu­nity to hall­mark D.C. artists such as Yuriko Ya­m­aguchi and Tom Green to truly ex­per­i­ment, then these artists failed to take it and run with it. A show that should find artists us­ing the print­mak­ing medium to move for­ward finds al­most ev­ery­one look­ing back.

COUR­TESY OF SHEILA CRIDER

‘SUN­SHINE BOOGA­LOO 2’: A fiery mono­print by Sheila Crider.

COUR­TESY OF JOYCE WELL­MAN

‘FIVE’: JoyceWell­man draws from the lateModernist mode.

COUR­TESY OF SAM GIL­LIAM

‘PRINT­ING ON THE­WORLD 3’: Sam Gil­liam also chose the show’s artists.

COUR­TESY OF EJ MONT­GOMERY

‘CEL­E­BRA­TION II’: EJMont­gomery’s of­fer­ing in the D.C. artists ex­hibit.

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