Needless to say, the holidays are upon us—the season of giving. And to declare that a work of art makes a nice gift is an almost banal platitude. Yes, art is pretty; it decorates our walls, enlivens our homes and adds flourish to our lives. But with a wounded economy that focuses our fiscal energies on more clearly practical priorities, art is frankly a dismissible commodity.
Art, however, has a stronger memory than almost any other possession and a presence that will outlast the times in which it was bought.
My grandmother recently passed away, and what I took to remember her by is a small painting she kept by her desk. It is not a very good painting—it’s a strange, miniature reproduction of a lesser-known Picasso from the artist’s blue period. She saw it every day and was fleetingly reminded of some small detail of her life, as I see it now and am reminded of her, typing feverishly away with a phone wedged in the crook of her neck against her ear.
Over the years, she gave me more gifts than I can recount—pencil sets and pocketknives when I was younger, clothes and books when I was older. None of those things are with me anymore, save perhaps a paperback or two. Her memory lives on through me, manifested in this silly little painting. This is the value of a work of art. It carries with it an innate history, story and feeling that few other objects can. A work is brought into existence by the artist, but it is not brought to life until it is displayed and appreciated by its owner.
Washington has a remarkable gallery scene, many showcasing local artists, and all with quality work worthy of a city of this stature. While often dwarfed by the ostentation of the museums, they are vital to the culture and community of our neighborhoods. Even if it’s just to look and chat with the gallery directors, go enjoy them. There is much to admire. The galleries featured below represent just a fraction of what is out there.
A Local Treasure: David Suter at Gallery A As an illustrator, David Suter has been on the D.C. scene for a while. A longtime op-ed illustrator for the Washington Post, among other national and regional publications, he was also a courtroom artist who sketched the Watergate trials in the 70s. His illustrations are immediately iconic, among the best examples of those lightly surreal, morally political, wonk-pop New Yorker-style ink drawings that us urbanites get such a kick out of. Suter is inherently attuned to the sentiment of his time and place, a mark of any great illustrator, from John Held’s lionized depictions of flappers and the jazz age of the 1920s, to the nostalgia of Norman Rockwell.
Suter has since moved on from his illustration work, and now works as a painter and sculptor. And while his subjects are more ambiguous and his mediums more expansive, the artist’s wit, humor, wonder and small-scale grandness remain ever present. His latest exhibition at Gallery A, “Outside the Box,” offers a lens into what seems like the subconscious of a wholly and uniquely visual thinker. His quirky craftsmanship and use of line carries over to sculpture remarkably, and in many cases the works look like highly technical 3D collages of driftwood and found objectry. The concision and clarity of the works again belie the outright intelligence, intellectual curiosity and effort it took to create them, like the work of architect I.M. Pei (who designed, among infinite examples, the East wing of the National Gallery), whose designs reference a larger context of its own space.
The sculptures are in an eternal relationship with its space and dimension, the visual information carefully—and in some cases sparingly—chosen for each piece. More so than many sculptures, the angle and distance from which you view them entirely alters your perception, lending the works a mathematical, MC Escher-like curiosity. “Seated Person with Dog,” if viewed from a certain vantage point, looks like a tastefully arranged stack of carved wood and aluminum. But as you come around the sculpture, the splayed legs of the canine and erect posture of the seated owner slowly reveal themselves.
His paintings carry a hazy, nebulous quality, exploring the space of light and the repetition of shapes within scenes that are reminiscent of the dignified and near-detachment of Diego Rivera. They are paintings of glances, memories of a collective cultural subconscious that Suter forms just concretely enough to be able to make out its image. A woman sits by the bed of a small, sickly elder; a rooftop church bell; a nude woman dancing while a man plays piano, a seated skeleton watches on, and a windmill looms in the background.
This show is a tremendous gallery experience. Fun, unique, engaging and smart, Suter’s work will stick with you, follow you around. I found myself thinking about it for days afterward. David Suter’s work will be on view at Gallery A, 2106 R Street, NW, through Dec. 31. For more information visit AlexGalleries.com.
Welcome Back, Cross Mackenzie Gallery Rebecca Cross, gallery director of Cross Mackenzie, has opened the doors of her gallery’s new location in Dupont Circle. Her current offerings, featuring the work of local painter Tati Kaupp and sculptor Charles Birnbaum, bring exuberance and taste together for a vibrant but peaceful exhibition that deserves to be seen.
In her earlier work, the intense color palette of Kaupp reflected the light from her childhood years in Mexico and the southwest. And while her recent paintings are considerably darker—they look like the skies just before the storm breaks—they still look celebratory. There is a sense of lightness and air here: circles, floating shapes, dots and squiggles, which rise to the top of her canvases with weightless effervescence.
The paintings are layered with quilt-like patterns that dance across the surface of the canvas—compositions in some cases literally jump over onto adjacent canvases, creating an unusual and wonderful diptych effect. While at first they may seem almost too free, perhaps even childlike, it is soon replaced by a wonder that is likely shared by the artist. I warmed up to the paintings quickly, feeling simultaneously calmed and electrified, like watching a summer thunderstorm through the window.
The extravagant sculptures of Charles Birnbaum are made up of undulating and intertwined shapes that resemble deep sea coral and anemones, but with curiously sensual undercurrents. Patterned elements are stacked and layered, with protruding, tapered appendages and sensuous tendrils reaching dangerously away from the safety of the massed center.
Birnbaum uses paper in his clay to give the porcelain more tensile strength and flexibility to hold up to the delicate and taxing methods employed by the artist. He presses the clay into surface textures, then folds, bends, pulls and twists the elements into expressive forms that even those studied in the techniques of ceramics are unable to understand or replicate. With no reflective clear glaze, the white porcelain sculptures take on a bone-like quality, absorbing light as opposed to reflecting it. The final result is a body of work that reflects a beautiful struggle of abandon and control, the unrestrained indulgence of the undulating forms versus the technical discipline of working and taming the material. The works of Tati Kauppi and Charles Birnbaum will be on display at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, 2026 R Street, NW, through Jan. 5, 2012. For more information visit CrossMackenzie.com