Ann Zahn’s miniretro- spective at Dupont Circle’s Alex Gallery ef- fectively con- trasts her current print experiments with her more tentative early work, illustrating the interconnectedness of her art and life as well as her varied creativity.
A Bethesda printmaker who grew up about a block from her present home of 37 years, the artist identifies intensively with her immediate world — the Bethesda garden with its waterfall and fish pond, boats near her summer home near the West Ocean City fishing grounds, beloved wild ponies at Assateague Island on Maryland’s and Virginia’s Eastern Shore and woolly sheep near Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County, Md.
Surprising for an artist who concentrates on depicting nature and animals are Mrs. Zahn’s outsized takes from 2003 on old master images such as the brilliantly colored linoleum-cut prints “Garden Journal XIII, Homage a Bellini/Titian’s ‘Feast of the Gods’ ” and “Garden Journal XIII, Homage a Bellini/Titian’s ‘Feast of the Gods’ and Vuillard’s ‘Woman With a Broom Sweeping.’ ”
Working with this mythological arcadian scene is a major, radical departure for the artist. The gallery unwisely placed these linoleum cuts — a relief print technique that is one of the oldest printmaking methods — in a back gallery. As the most exciting works in the show, they belong in a front area.
The 1514 “Feast of the Gods,” owned by the National Gallery of Art, must have attracted Mrs. Zahn by its color and sensuality. Painted by Giovanni Bellini and his student Titian, it expressed the 16th-century Venetian joy in nature and the pleasures of man.
To heighten the print’s impact even further, Mrs. Zahn centers the large Bellini-Titian-inspired image and surrounds it with 12 mostly 9-by-8-inch gridlike prints that pay affectionate tribute to iconic paintings ranging from the Italian Renaissance and 17th-century Dutch golden age to the French impressionists, Pablo Picasso and the American modernist Albert Ryder.
Visitors will recognize old friends in Zahn’s “Feast,” such as Arshile Gorky’s wistful “The Artist and His Mother” and Johannes Vermeer’s touching “The Lacemaker.”
By contrast, the gallery chose to feature in its front areas the printmaker’s undeniably glorious flower prints, including the collagelike “Garden Journal XIV, A Daylily Garden” and the aqueous-seeming “Garden Journal IV: Waterfall III.”
Centered over the gallery’s Victorian fireplace in the first gallery, “Waterfall” is a delightful jumble of colorful yellow lilies, little red creatures, blue-gray rocks, a yellow flowerpot holding red geraniums and bubbling blue water.
A very large white-line woodcut, “Waterfall” looks more like a watercolor than a print. In the catalog for Strathmore Hall Arts Center’s “Ann Zahn” exhibition of two years ago, Strathmore curator David Tannous clarified the confusion, writing, “The color printmaking technique called the white-line woodcut employs only one piece of wood to reproduce all the colors of an image instead of requiring a separate block for each color.”
In addition to its valuable description of printmaking techniques, this catalog, available at the gallery, explains Mrs. Zahn’s art the way the gallery should have with object and text labels.
“Waterfall,” with its clashing perspectives and running colors, clearly is part of the artist’s more psychologically charged, dreamlike oeuvres. Not so “Daylily Garden,” in which Mrs. Zahn attaches a “garden” of cut-linoleum red flowers set against a white base. She then placed it on a roughened, rhubarb-and-oak background of handmade paper.
The artist began making her own paper in the 1970s and incorporates parts of fruits, bushes and trees in her unique style.
Mrs. Zahn made a series of Assateague ponies, animals to which she feels very close, in the 1980s. She depicts horses that are close and far away, in large groups or small, usually close to the water. Sometimes there’s a horizon line. In others, the ponies seem to float in space. She alternates brilliant colors with more muted ones.
The printmaker chose the technique of viscosity etching for the horses. Mr. Tannous describes it as “a complex method of color etching that uses a printing plate with multiple surfaces. There are at least three levels” (the relief and two lower levels).
Circling back to the exhibit’s beginning on the gallery’s second floor, one finds the Matisse-like “Beauty & the Beast, 100 Views of Home” lithography and etching series of the 1980s. Here, Mrs. Zahn’s talent for strong, calligraphic lines already has become evident.
Mrs. Zahn, who shows more in the Maryland suburbs than in the city, presents a challenging, handsome and complex show. One of the area’s most talented, experienced and expressive printmakers, she has works in major collections such as the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum for Women in the Arts.
Don’t miss this exhibit.
WHAT: “New Garden Journals” WHERE: Alex Gallery, 2106 R St. NW
WHEN: Summer hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and by appointment, through Sept. 7