January 31 - Date TBD
GALLERY HOURS: MONDAY - FRIDAY 10 AM - 5 PM and BY APPOINTMENT
IMPROMPTU EXHIBITION - A SCHOOL WITHIN A SCHOOL
REVIEW BY BRIAN KELLEY
For many years, Pat Kraniotis kept a Ricky Gervais quote in her studio.
No one else knows what they are doing either.
Isn’t that the truth. The last few years have been one curveball after another: a marathon of adapting to new, sometimes horrific and sometimes absurd limits in the world. While the Washington Studio School had initially planned to hang a solo show for the start of the year, gravity, ice, and bad luck all came together (that show is currently postponed). A totally new exhibition was needed – fast. Within the span of less than a week, Jill Phillips, the curator of “Impromptu,” had secured nearly sixty works. That sense of haste also means that the show works as a comprehensive snapshot of what the Washington Studio School looks like on the heels of four waves of Covid. It is art that is both highly flexible and grounded.
Phillip’s ace was the Washington Studio School Atelier community, a group of artists, mostly painters, who have studio spaces in the upper levels of the Washington Studio School building. Artists in the Atelier are students, alumni, and faculty of the school. The Atelier was the first portion of the Washington Studio School to reopen in 2020, before the reintroduction of in-person classes. These artists have continued to make work at a prolific pace, and hanging the show was ultimately a task of taking work that was already in the building down a series of winding Dupont Circle townhome stairs.
When I first saw the show, what struck me was that there was a strong stylistic unity among the various artists. Grayed moss green, rust red with steel blue, burnt earth orange, and true gray might be the school colors, given how favored they are from one painter to another. In the case of Jill Bateman’s paintings of a tree-lined street, this palette has a seasonality about it. It is cold and overcast, possibly late autumn. For Gail Goodman’s work, the neutral color palette makes it seem like we are looking back at some kind of distant past. The painting of a woman holding a young girl feels like a fuzzy memory from childhood. Goodman’s self portrait with an empty bird nest and flowers reads like a contemporary vanitas. The flowers are painted loosely and ambiguously enough that they could either be fresh or fully wilted. The nest could be pointedly empty. Goodman herself, with skin warmer and more colorful than the rest of the painting, however, is still hale. This a painting less about reminding everyone about their mortality in the manner of skulls and roses of art history. It is about pointedly living even when so much of the world still can have a quality of emptiness.
Not all work is so controlled and measured in its use of color. Brenda Fox has paintings and pastel drawings of figures that are built upon ceruleans, lavenders, and magentas, along with that burnt orange. This color palette is a warm cup of cocoa after coming in from the cold this winter. Lynne Horning has a similar effect in her alpine landscape. This large oil on canvas shows spring bloom with vivid yellow-greens of the meadows and a looming gray blue in the glacial mountains beyond. Barbara Kraft balances stronger colors like yellow-orange with neutral gray, white, and black in her mixed media collages. These collages have a sense of a frenetic rhythm in their shaping that seems inspired by the geometry of urban spaces.
Along with color, there is a shared affinity for mark-making that is loose and often gestural, perhaps recalling the drawings of the modernist figurative artist Alberto Giacometti. Sally Levie’s mix-media drawings of full-length standing nudes use fluid and large brush ink washes that create the mass of the men, with rivulets of ink dripping down the side of the paper. She then (or was it before the ink?) goes over the figure with sanguine chalk. The effect is that of motion and potential energy in the mark overlaying the stability of the standing pose. Modernist gestural marks notwithstanding, one of these drawings looks almost classical; like the famous Herculaneum Runners from the Naples National Archeological Museum, if they were to stop for a rest.
A gestural approach to mark-making allows an artist, among many other things, to control what we focus on and how our eye move. Mary Freeman’s graphite drawing of a bouquet of flowers pulls our focus away from the blossoms and into the cluster of stalks and leaves, where the lines become darker, thicker, and more insistent. A few leaves curl and flit, helping move our eye out from this center to the edges of the design. That the motif is flowers feels secondary to the handling of mark. Traditional motifs like flowers, figures, and the landscape, become a given for playing with abstraction. This approach, while surely well-known as far back as the days of Picasso and Braque’s cubism, is different from many schools of contemporary art that foreground something more conceptual or symbolic over the figurative and abstract. Other artists that share a gestural approach include Peggy Greene with her colorful and semi-transparent abstract landscapes, Mitsuko Tsuchiya with a playful wet-into-wet oil on canvas landscape in muted greens, and Stephen Milliken’s standing and reclining nudes in oil and charcoal. The Washington Studio School has always put an emphasis on working from the figure, through both model sessions and transcriptions of works from art history. In one Leslie Cohen painting, she is working on an oil transcription of a polychromed sculpture of a young woman from the Renaissance.
Of all the works in the exhibit, Michelle Lurie’s mixed media piece at the entrance to the gallery may be the one most addressing a hot topic of current events: Covid-19. For artists that, as a school, tend to take the long-view towards art history and time, how is something like Covid addressed? In Lurie’s piece, there are heads, hats, and face masks. It isn’t clear if the heads are real or simply mannequins. Is this a face-masked crowd or shop’s window display? The painting reminds me of the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist who frequently painted street scenes of urban crowds that feel tinged with a sense of social anxiety and unease. This seems more than fitting for the anxiety of face masks. Lurie, however, has a very different color palette from the chromatic Kirchner. Her neutral blue-grays and warm earth colors, that Washington Studio School neutral palette, soften the mood, creating an air of something graceful and mysterious. Equally enigmatic are the paintings of Maria Uehara. Her figures stand in gray liminal spaces like unadorned hallways or empty streets, possibly vacated due to pandemic lockdowns. Teenagers play hopscotch with toddlers, something entirely plausible in 2020 or 2021 and yet mostly unimaginable in 2019 and possibly even now once again.
Visitors to “Impromptu,” will surely find more examples of this shared sense of color and gesture that I have outlined. I know they will also find many divergences among this group of artists. Again, what is interesting is that these patterns happened in a largely spontaneous selection process that would have made it difficult for the Atelier artists to have a deliberately thematic show, had they even wanted to. Many art exhibitions of the moment aim to uplift visitors during these trying times. “Impromptu” did this for me by reminding me of how resilient we all are, even as we may not feel guided by a grand design in our day-to-day existence. No one knows exactly what they are doing right now, and even with this, we still make great work.
“Impromptu” is open for viewing Monday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm, and by appointment. Featured artists include Jill Bateman, Leslie Cohen, Mary Freedman, Brenda Fox, Gail Goodman, Peggy Greene, Lynne Horning, Pat Kraniotis, Barbara Kraft, Sally Levie, Michele Lurie, Stephen Milliken, Mitsuko Tsuchiya, and Maria Uehara.
Brian Kelley is a painter and faculty member of the Washington Studio School.