“20 Years, 20 Artists” at The Ralls Collection

"Orchard Mist" by John Blee, on view at The Ralls Collection through May 28, 2011
"Orchard Mist" by John Blee, on view at The Ralls Collection through May 28, 2011

It is difficult to encapsulate the significance of The Ralls Collection to Washington’s artistic community, much in the same way it is hard to grasp the broad archive of substantial artwork that has passed through the gallery since its opening 20 years ago.

In both cases, the amount accomplished and the merit achieved by owner and founder Marsha Ralls dwarfs any singular summation or exhibition. But the work present at The Ralls Collection’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition, “20 Years, 20 Artists” (March 18 – May 28), does not try to weave any sort of narrative or biography. With this show, Ralls has done what she has consistently done for nearly a quarter century: put together a remarkable exhibition of beautiful contemporary artwork with a clear vision and impeccable taste.

A Texas native, Ralls began her career in the arts as an apprentice to American master painter Robert Rauschenberg. After doing consultation and advising work for several major galleries and auction houses, including Sotheby’s Auction House in New York, she founded The Ralls Collection Inc. in 1988 and opened the doors to the corresponding gallery in Georgetown in 1991. Since then, she has been sharing her expertise with the Washington arts community, working within the city and internationally to forward the development, education and appreciation of the arts.

Her more recent accomplishments and contributions include a longstanding seat on the DC Arts & Humanities Commission Board, having been appointed by Anthony Williams in 2004, as well as traveling to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to provide advisory services, looking to collaborate with local leaders on arts initiatives and fostering economic development through the arts.

But inside the doors of The Ralls Collection, you wouldn’t need to know any of this. All that you need to know is hanging on the walls, proving to you that there are still galleries showcasing innovative and relevant artwork in Washington. Like all of Ralls’ other shows, “20 Years, 20 Artists” is focused absolutely on the art and the artists. “We have such close, successful relationships,” she says of the artists she represents, “and I wanted to celebrate them, their art and their contribution to the Ralls Collection.”

Many of the artists Ralls chose for the exhibition have been with the gallery since its beginning, Melinda Stickney and Caio Fonseca among them. Stickney’s “Bliss + Grief,” a modest-size canvas that plays out like a whimsical, brutal family history, utilizes a classical sense of color and composition to realize a deeply textured canvas. Her empirical use of shadow within her weightless, abstract shapes recalls a hyperbolic theatricality and experimentation that is almost literary.

Fonseca’s “Pietrasanta Painting CO6.54” is a huge, encapsulating black canvas, a sort of adumbrated landscape littered with sharp flecks of white that dance around the dark field like a vague melody. A pastoral blueprint that might be reminiscent of Pietrasanta, Italy, where the artist lives and works, the viewer feels immediately comfortable in front of the canvas, but its mystery lingers long after the initial viewing.

Among a select few artists new to the gallery, DC painter John Blee’s “Orchard Mist” serves as a most remarkable centerpiece. The first painting one sees upon entering the gallery, it is a luscious environment of color, which warms you from within like dawn’s first light. Blee’s color is full of meaning, as significant to his searching canvases as with the impressionists, who used their paint to define light, time and atmosphere. Blee has been heavily influenced by poetry, notably the work of Rilke. “It is Rilke’s insistence on putting the impossible at the center of the quest that stays with me every day,” he says.

This influence is clear in his work. Like the garden paintings of Pierre Bonnard, Blee’s paintings are elegant and contemplative, effortlessly composed, intricate and expansive. Blee’s work will be exhibited in a solo show at The Ralls Collection this coming fall, which this paper greatly anticipates. Keep an eye out for it in the coming months. It is not a show you want to miss.

Two canvases by David Richardson, whose show at The Ralls Collection ran through last month and garnered tremendous national attention, hang in the gallery for the exhibition, including a new piece commissioned for the show. With Richardson’s planes of bold colors and textures, his work recalls a landscape both foreign and familiar, contained yet effusive.

Ralls has assembled another monumental exhibition, significant to the local community and the artistic community at large. Masters like Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra hang next to renowned local and international painters, bridging an array of styles and influence into a cohesive and relevant body of works. It is only March, but this exhibition will surely go down as one of the major arts events of 2011.

“20 Years, 20 Artists” will be on view at The Ralls Collection through May 28. For more information visit RallsCollection.com

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