- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

French impressionist paintings take on a new dimension with the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.”Mr. Johnson has brought magic to longtime impressionist favorites such as Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”.The exhibit asks visitors not only to walk into the life-size-plus tableaux but also to touch and even embrace its figures. Mr. Johnson hopes visitors have fun with the art, and I surely did.

Flashbulbs fired again and again. A little girl cuddled up to another small girl — this one of painted bronze with a fancy hat — in Mr. Johnson’s “Family Secret,” his take on Renoir’s “Two Sisters (On the Terrace).”

The sculptor’s elaborations on other artists’ ideas for a world of make-believe captivated visitors. “I’m re-creating the artist’s subject, not his work,” Mr. Johnson says.

Washington knows him best for “The Awakening,” a bronze giant struggling through the earth at Hains Point Park and endearing “everyman” figures such the police officer directing traffic near the senior center in Friendship Heights. Most everyone loves them — except overly serious critics of the art establishment.

Mr. Johnson, 73, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, lives and works in Hamilton, N.J., as well as New York City. The sculptor is a prolific creator of his own art and displays it and the work of other sculptors in the Grounds for Sculpture, a 22-acre public park he created in Hamilton.

He recently embarked on a different direction in his art, the one seen at the Corcoran, of translating French impressionist paintings into three-dimensional creations. His visit to a park in Japan, where an artist had re-created Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte” with plywood figures, inspired the new phase.

The newer, brightly colored tableaux may seem different from the earlier figurative works, but they continue the humor and project it even more. In the “Were You Invited?” tableau, based on Renoir’s “Boating Party,” Mr. Johnson shows one of Renoir’s models seated next to Renoir’s friend, painter Gustave Caillebotte.

I can almost hear the sculptor chuckling when he describes his work in the catalog: “I have her shoe kicked off, and she’s running her foot up his leg. My humor comes in the third dimension.”

Is this great art? No, but it is good art. It’s certainly not kitsch, a popular moniker for some of Mr. Johnson’s work. More importantly, his painted sculpture points to a new kind of art that gets visitors into museums and makes their visits meaningful. He makes it fun, makes it sexy, makes it participatory. The Corcoran took a chance and predicted people — young and old — would come in droves, which is just what’s happening.

But Mr. Johnson’s art isn’t all fun and games. The sculptor chose Edouard Manet’s “Olympia,” one of the most famous nudes in the history of art, as the inspiration for his “Confrontational Vulnerability.” The tableau breathes eroticism and wealth, and the sculptor spares no effort in creating the racy atmosphere that’s keyed to the direct stare of the woman.

Visitors enter the scene through a beaded curtain as if entering a brothel — where they see a languishing courtesan, a polite word for prostitute. It’s decorated in soft mauves and purples appropriate to a courtesan’s elaborately decorated Second Empire-style bedroom — velvet curtains, Oriental rug, a crystal chandelier.

By contrast, the sculptor dresses “Olympia” scantily. A black neckband, flower, bracelet and one slipper are her only accents as her body and direct look are the main subjects here. A black cat arches its back, echoing her almost frightening presence.

The sculptor also intends to teach visitors a lesson about art history as explained in the accompanying exhibit label: “This fine distinction between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’ had allowed painters … through the ages, who were usually male, to enjoy painting nudes or looking at a picture of an unclothed female without shame …. Olympia broke all the rules. …. She greatly offended the critics because she was unconventional and, perhaps, because she exposed the hypocrisy of the convenient distinction between a nude and a naked woman.”

Mr. Johnson’s and Manet’s Olympias both still have shock value even in our sex-saturated society.

Though Mr. Johnson plows new ground with his art, not every piece is successful. In the Corcoran’s rotunda, for example, he places Monet’s wife and son too high in “On Poppied Hill.” And he and his assistants were sloppy in applying the automotive paint to the figure in “Oriental Fan.” Though he tries to imitate the loose brush strokes of the impressionists, the approach doesn’t work in this particular piece.

Jacqueline Serwer, exhibit curator, says the time spent fabricating a work is not crucial to its success. “Mr. Johnson and his assistants had already cast the two figures in ‘Eye of the Beholder,’ inspired by Manet’s ‘At Pere Lathuille’s,’ and it took just two months to make the backdrop,” she says. “‘The Boating Party,’” with its 19 figures and complicated setting, was a larger challenge and took two to three years to produce. But they’re both wonderful in their own ways.”

Visitors confirm Mrs. Serwer’s belief that the art and philosophy behind Mr. Johnson’s work is what counts. Like many, she agrees with Mr. Johnson that going to a museum can sometimes be a passive experience. But the children snuggling up to the young ladies in “Family Secret,” and the grown-ups openly gawking at Olympia in her boudoir, show the sculptor is on to something.

The exhibit’s popularity should make other artists sit up and take notice. Meanwhile, the District is going to have a lot of fun with it through Jan. 5.

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Ave. at 17th St. NW

WHAT: “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.”

WHEN: Open daily except Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. Thursdays through Jan. 5

TICKETS: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for members’ guests and students with valid ID, $8 for families, free for members and children younger than 12.

PHONE: 202/639-1800

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