A Popular Vision

Photographer Catriona Fraser Is Focusing on Her New Business

By Ferdinand Protzman
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 11 1997; Page B02
The Washington Post
"Reprinted with permission from washingtonpost.com and Ferdinand Protzman"

Some people open a gallery because they love art, have plenty of money and think the experience would be fun. Others set up shop on a wing and a prayer, driven by a desire to dance, however briefly, on culture's cutting edge. Catriona Fraser opened Washington's newest gallery because of a legal dispute with a Scottish art dealer.

"I went back to Scotland this past March to retrieve 26 of my works from a gallery owner who had been claiming for two years that they were lost in the mail," says Fraser, a 25-year-old photographer who grew up in Britain and began her career in Fettercairn, Scotland. "Finally, I sued him. Right before our court date, he suddenly `discovered' all of my works hidden in a closet and returned them. Like many artists, I had had other bad experiences with galleries. But this one made me think of opening a gallery that didn't treat artists like that."

After looking for space in Charlottesville and Annapolis, Fraser rented one large room on the courtyard of Georgetown's Canal Square complex, which is home to a number of other galleries.

The Fraser Gallery opened Oct. 18 with an exhibition of its founder's black-and-white infrared photographs of Scotland's landscapes, castles and Pictish stones. Her moody, evocative pictures won first prize for photography in the Northern Virginia Arts Festival in 1994 and 1995 and have proven popular at outdoor arts festivals across the United States. At her inaugural show, they sold well.

Fraser, who is married to a U.S. citizen, moved to the United States in 1994 because her photographs, in which the images are formed by heat rather than light, received a much warmer reception from critics and the public here than in her native land.

"While my photos were winning prizes here, in Scotland I was battling the state-supported art establishment just to try and show my work at local libraries," she says. "Many people in Britain still don't believe that photography can be art. The level of ignorance is very high. Here photographers are taken seriously."

Fraser is using the money from the sale of her photographs to finance the gallery. She would not reveal the initial investment or operating costs of her business.

"I don't have any illusions," says Fraser, a well-organized, energetic person who dresses in the all-black look favored by New York's arty set. "Owning a gallery is the second-worst business to be in, after restaurants. They go bankrupt all the time. But I am quite confident. I know how to run a business, and I'm in this for the long haul."

While Fraser does not expect to make a profit right away, she is convinced that her gallery fills a niche in Washington's art market. "A lot of the work in galleries here is avant-garde, confrontational and expensive," she says. "And, in the end, I think most people would find it very difficult to live with it in their homes. I can offer an alternative."

Her plan is to show works mainly by artists she has met at the outdoor art fairs held all over the country in the warm months. These shows draw good crowds but are generally ignored by gallery owners and critics because the art, which can be technically quite impressive, is usually created to appeal to broad commercial tastes.

At shows like the Old Town Art Fair in Chicago, there are plenty of artists showing meticulous, photo-realistic watercolors of small-town general stores and weathered barns with Mail Pouch chewing tobacco advertisements painted on their sides. Abstract art of any kind is almost totally absent.

"My goal is to show beautiful work, technically well done and that people enjoy," Fraser says. "That doesn't mean boring or simply decorative. It means nice, different work. For now, it is my own personal taste guiding the shows, and most of the artists are people I know from the art fairs who do not have gallery representation."

So far, the exhibitions have been fairly tame. The gallery's second show featured black-and-white drawings by F. Lennox Campello, a local artist and freelance critic. In September, Campello wrote a letter to The Post about the opening of the gallery in which he described Fraser as "perhaps the youngest gallery owner in the capital area and certainly one of the most talented and business savvy artists I have met in a long time." He neglected to mention that she is his wife.

Fraser Gallery is now showing an exhibition of linoleum-block prints by Foust, an artist from Richmond. Her black-and-white works are small, figurative and vaguely reminiscent of woodcuts by the German expressionists. In the "Seven Deadly Sins" series, Foust makes heavy-handed use of some obvious metaphors. In a piece titled "Avarice," a woman is fondling her pearl necklace while her male companion opens his wallet, letting credit cards spill out. Through a window in the background, the viewer sees an armed robbery in progress. The prints are priced between $100 and $295.

Fraser says she has no set price range for the gallery and has exhibitions booked well into 1998. One of the more promising projects that she and Campello have undertaken is organizing a show to be held this summer of 25 portraits by artists who were inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Submissions have been pouring in from all over the country.

"Owning a gallery requires a lot of work. But I'm very happy every single day when I come here. It just doesn't feel like a job. Pulling the innards out of a chicken in a factory, now that's work. This is different because it is something I truly enjoy."
Foust, Fraser Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, 12-6, Tuesday-Saturday. 202-298-6450, through Thursday.
@CAPTION: Photographer Catriona Fraser in her new gallery. "I am quite confident," she says. "I know how to run a business, and I'm in this for the long haul."
Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
"Reprinted with permission from washingtonpost.com and Ferdinand Protzman"