"Two Bids for Greatness Result in a Cry for Help"
By Jessica Dawson
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2003; Page C05
"By Jessica Dawson, reprinted with permission from the Washington Post"

Anyone in the art world will tell you: Realism has been done. Remember those cave painters back in 15,000 B.C.? Could those guys render a bison or what

Nowadays, while a select few have gotten big painting figures -- a major exhibition of John Currin's neo-Northern Renaissance portraiture opens at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art next month; Lisa Yuskavage's 2000 solo at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art won accolades -- only a near-cosmic alignment of skill and innovation will capture the attention of an art world entranced by its own progress.

Not surprisingly, I guess, one branch of contemporary figurative painters, the ones not quite so talented or clever, have transformed attention-seeking into an art. And a full-time job. Their over-the-top tableaux host figures enacting scenes evoking myth or art history in operatic gestures, outlandish outfits and contortionist-caliber poses. Layering allusion upon allusion, they hope to overwhelm viewers with their erudition -- and bury their lack of originality. Additional layers of shock value -- maybe kinky, maybe political -- further deflect attention from their shortcomings.

If they could speak, their paintings would say, "Me, Me, Me!" Practitioners of this genre are too common, but I'll cite two on view right now, Andrew Wodzianski at Fraser Gallery Bethesda and CM Dupre at Zenith on Seventh Street NW. Both artists, exquisitely versed in the Bible, the Greeks and the Cross-Dressers, manifest a breathtaking pomposity.

Dupre in particular displays a real fondness for intellect. Her canvas "The Frieze" stars a trio of heavily made-up ladies that are, in fact, cross-dressing gentlemen. According to the artist, they reference Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" and Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party." Me, I'm looking at the face paint and thinking Kiss. But whatever. Lines from Virgil's "Aeneid," in Latin, run across the top of the canvas, just above a painted frieze of the kind you'd find on a Roman temple -- if Roman temples had incorporated drag queens. Dupre's trotted out so many classical references it's looking like 19 B.C. here on Seventh Street. In her other paintings, Dupre includes images of more contemporary folks -- Osama bin Laden, Albert Einstein, Chairman Mao. Her default composition looks something like a checkerboard in which she juxtaposes views of exotic architecture with small figures. Sometimes she'll also scribble on names -- of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi or author Jose Saramago, perhaps. As Dupre describes it, the interaction of the text and images "becomes a performance -- for the paint, the images, the language." Still, no matter how many cultural heavyweights, past and present, Dupre invites into her canvases, none rescues her pictures from their confounding meaninglessness.

Wodzianski, too, conjures historical heavies. On the surface, though, his paintings enact more personal dramas. Recurring characters, each of which looks like the painter himself, dress up in green dragon suits, Marie Antoinette wigs or bras and panties. Some interact with a hobby horse.

In the four large-scale canvases forming the crux of Wodzianski's Fraser show, the characters enact violent scenes culled from the Bible -- Archangel Michael battling a dragon, Jacob wrestling with God, etc. But they wind up looking more like soft-core sadomasochism or kinky dress-up games than stories from Scripture. Maybe it's the uniforms that throw me. One guy wears a red-and-white outfit crossing a circus ringleader with a cowboy and a bellhop. Or maybe the problem is the minimal underwear and angel wings.

With the right attitude, though, Wodzianski's dynamic canvases have a circusy flair. Check out "Jacob": Watch as the masked man wearing kneepads jumps off the couch! See Marie Antoinette Man clobber a boxer! Wodzianski's scenarios are fine camp. But is the artist in on the joke?

Andrew Wodzianski at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., 301-718-9651, to May 7. Free.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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