At first glance, the concurrent solo ex- hibitions of Renee Stout and Steven Cushner at Hemphill Fine Arts couldn’t be more different.Miss Stout, 45, uses various mediums — painting, drawing, sculpting with found objects and neon light — to tell the story of “Fatima,” the indefatigable healer-conjurer with both African and American roots. Mr. Cushner, 49, chooses just one medium and rejoices in the very act of painting, in structuring the oil pigment into different evocative shapes.
Both of these prominent D.C. artists who have chosen to build their careers here (he is originally from Cleveland, she is from Pittsburgh) are on personal journeys of a similar nature. Miss Stout says she tries to shape fragments of memories and life experiences into a whole to better understand her own being, and, by doing so, help others as well. In Mr. Cushner’s particular journey, he tries to understand his undeniable mortality and problems in realizing his life ambitions.
These two artists appear successful in facing the difficulties of their lives and expressing them through their individual mediums.
As you enter Miss Stout’s “Eyes of Fatima” exhibit in Hemphill’s back gallery, watch out. The image of Fatima — in glamorous dark glasses, generous wig, black leather pants and fashionable pointed shoes — leans forward in an aggressive, even threatening, pose. Fatima, an attractive black woman who inherited her aunt’s “root store” filled with powerful roots and potions, is a combination imaginative alter ego for the artist and other strong women, be they black or white.
There is a drawing of Fatima in her shop with books on potions and herbs. Another penciled rendering is of Sterling Rochambeau, a handsome, mustached, light-skinned black man who could be a partner for Fatima, but the artist counts him out.
“He would be the perfect balance for Fatima, but they’re both afraid of and attracted to each other. Men like him want to control, but women are growing faster than men. We’re ahead of them and don’t want to be controlled,” Miss Stout says.
Miss Stout partly patterned Fatima after a fortuneteller in her old neighborhood, but there are several other women, including herself, in Fatima. “She’s a composite of women who take charge of their own lives. Too often women tend to be what others need and want them to be. I was doing a lot of self-exploring during this series,” says the artist, who created the character at the time of a breakup with a love interest.
Miss Stout pictures Fatima most graphically in her carefully rendered pencil drawing, “Fatima … Reader, Advisor, Root Worker.” The artist explains that a root worker knew herbal medicines and penciled in books on the subject on the background bookshelf. Miss Stout presents Fatima as a multilayered metaphor, one who is part-pharmacist, part-psychologist.
The root worker here is also a metaphor for the male-female struggle. “Fatima can help everybody but herself. People can’t accept us,” the artist says.
An object-sculpture that could have been part of Fatima’s root store is “Sachet Powders, House Spray & Herbs.” Miss Stout deliberately made the mixed media, free-standing object look old, like a piece originally in the root store.
The climax of Miss Stout’s show is a bright neon sign proclaiming, “I Can Heal … Readings $2” with Fatima’s protective eye in the center. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the modern technique of neon with an earlier writing that could be 100 years old or more.
Mr. Cushner doesn’t spell out the stages of his journey as clearly, but the signs are there. Best known for boldly brushed, gestural paintings with rich black motifs, he’s shifted to lighter, more subtle colors. He found that black had become too “tyrannical” and limited him with what he could do with color.
“Black put me in a cage,” he says. “It was a trap I couldn’t get out of.”
Mr. Cushner says he began musing about his own mortality about two years ago. “Being close to 50 may be part of it,” he says. The artist also began to realize that obstacles always stood in his way and paintings didn’t always turn out the way he wanted them to.
They aren’t melancholy paintings, but they have melancholy themes usually based on ordinary things he sees around him. For example, in “Curtains,” he used layering to build up the image, space and color. He says he worked on the painting for six months and painted over it at least 200 times. The many layers of different colors seem to vibrate, and the work really shimmers.
The image came from curtains that he saw when he drove by a window. Mr. Cushner began thinking about their metaphorical content — their futility.
“They’re really not strong enough to keep the outside world outside and also not strong enough to keep others from seeing in,” he says. For him, they stand for things we do to protect ourselves but which ultimately fail, things that don’t turn out the way he thinks people would like them to.
Mr. Cushner carries through a similar idea in “Road to Nowhere,” made up of dripped geometric white-beige configurations on a brilliant orange ground. When he asks, “We’re going somewhere, but where are we going?” it expresses a similar kind of frustration.
He uses an architectural image in “Doorway,” in which he places several standing rectangular grids behind one another. Here, the artist is more interested in design and design patterns. He says he envisions himself through one doorway, or challenge, then another doorway and still another.
Miss Stout had what was called a large “mid-career retrospective” at the Belger Arts Center for Creative Studies in Kansas City last year. Mr. Cushner, who has shown extensively in the District, teaches at the Corcoran. Many honors have been heaped on them.
Yet, they say they’re searching and journeying. It will be interesting to see where their travels take them in the future.
WHAT: “Renee Stout, Eyes of Fatima” and “Steven Cushner, Recent Paintings & Works on Paper”
WHERE: Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW, Georgetown
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and by appointment, through Oct. 18