Contemporary art shines in Bethesda galleries

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
courtesy of the artist
Renee Butler’s installation ‘‘Entering Emptiness,” at Osuna Gallery, creates a virtual experience of sea, sky and sound at Miami Beach.

Painter Joe White and his longtime partner Renee Butler are exhibiting together at Bethesda’s Osuna Gallery. A rather disarming combination of White’s pastel colored realist paintings and Butler’s mesmerizing light and sound installation — occupying more than half the gallery space — recreates the sights and sounds of Miami Beach.

Butler’s installation, involving eight silk panels hanging from the darkened gallery ceiling, with a projector on the far side, provides a compelling feeling of place. White’s paintings do the same. Their blond colors and cool angular views of beach architecture parallel Butler’s work, if not with the same sensory overload. Butler’s beach installation makes you think about all the good things you remember about your last visit to the beach — without the gritty sand in your picnic and the noise of your neighbors. The latter is there, but muffled and distant. The video projection tracking the view from morning to sunset seen from the couple’s apartment on Miami Beach includes the sound of voices under the repeating sound of the waves. It mimics what you might have heard while you lay on your towel, eyes closed and feeling at one with the environment. There’s even a fan to add some soft breezes that gently ruffle the silk panels.

Installations of this kind, which the artist calls ‘‘Resonant Environments,” are exactly that. They involve a combination of light, translucent fabrics and sound to surround the viewer with sensory experiences of different kinds. Butler’s influences include such artists as James Turrell, the genius of contemporary light sculpture and environments, and Robert Rauschenberg, whose work with light and sound, as well as his silk transfer ‘‘Hoarfrost” series are clear precedents here. Her stated goal is ‘‘to dissolve the boundaries between spectator and participant, inside and outside, abstraction and reality, time and space.” The participatory nature of this new work, and its constantly changing aspect, not only satisfyingly mimic nature (outside), but memory (inside) as well.

White’s contributions comprise both sensitive watercolors done in Florida and oils on linen done from them in D.C. Among the tightly selected group of works, I was drawn to the large oil ‘‘Two Buildings, Washington, DC.” Painted in 1980, soon after White turned away from abstraction, it is the only work not from 2005-6 in the exhibit. The unusual ambiguity of perspective and the relative flatness of pastel tonal areas in this painting show White’s relation to the Washington Color School as well the origins of his contemporary realist compositions.

A few blocks north on Wisconsin Avenue, the Fraser Gallery is hosting the nine finalists of the second Bethesda Painting Awards. The First Prize, which carries a $10,000 cash award, went to Tony Shore for a group of realist paintings on black rayon velvet. Having grown up in a working class Baltimore neighborhood, Shore’s paintings are, one supposes, intended to recall the aesthetic tastes of the people represented in them. More interesting was the work of Second Prize winner James Rieck, whose large canvases represent close-up views painted in gray tones. Of these, the large cut-off images of a young girl wearing a 1960s-style formal dress and shoes called ‘‘Forever Yours” (here nos. 1 and 3) are both attractive and somewhat disturbing. They seem to evoke something lost, rather like looking at an old family photo album and seeing the youthful picture of someone now deceased. Scott Hutchinson’s installation ‘‘I Don’t Know,” which took Third Place, repeats his often seen mouth paintings, this time 42 of them in oil on paper. Enhancing the effect is the accompanying animation of the paintings in an LCD projection, also, like the paintings, in very small format. Despite the imagery, this work is essentially minimalist in its lack of content and repetitiveness. It most closely resembles the experience of listening to the minimalist music of Steve Reich or the songs of Frank Zappa.

Probably the most interesting painter in the exhibit is Haley Hasler. Coincidentally, her work is reminiscent of last year’s First Prize winner Joe Kabriel. Conceptually, it is very strong, with oddly surrealist compositions and suggestive narrative content. Each painting includes a self-portrait in figurative compositions full of irony and intrigue. Yet, they fall short technically, with many areas left unresolved and passages of overpainting that ruin the perspective; these are not generally evident in slides and digital reproductions. In ‘‘Birthday,” for example, the upper edge of the skirt is not finished, and a small patch of the wallpaper pattern under the figure’s left arm looks like a cutout. Hasler would do well to correct these problems. If one chooses to paint realistically, then one is obliged to avoid fundamental technical issues such as these.

Andrew Wodzianski, also among the finalists last year, was represented with two abstract works that appear to be derived from his more characteristic figurative work: close-ups of much enlarged details. They are strong, exciting paintings that show this young artist’s evolving talent. Conversely, the work of Phyllis Plattner and Michael Farrell always seems stuck in one place, always basically the same with slight variations in subject.