- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

The Edison Place Gallery’s “Manon Cleary: A Retrospective” doesn’t live up to its name — because retrospectives usually are chronological surveys of artists’ works in large spaces with explanatory wall labels. Miss Cleary is one of the city’s most prominent and admired artists, but the scope of this show is much too small.

It’s a good attempt to exhibit her art, but the gallery’s inadequate space and the limited resources of the Washington Arts Museum — the local alternative arts organization sponsoring the exhibit — negate the overall effect.

Many major works are missing, as the show is limited to 62 loans from local collectors.

Still, there’s much to appreciate in this four-decade minisurvey, especially with the strong “rat series,” sensuous nudes and luminous graphite pencil drawings.

To clarify the often puzzling images without descriptive labels, exhibit curator Jean Lawlor Cohen divided the exhibit into four main thematic galleries: Rat Room, Mysteries Room, Drawings and Photographs, and Pop Art. She wisely began with the 12 large mischievous rat paintings in the large first room.

Much like people, the charming little rodents — lovingly painted alter egos of the artist herself — pose for admirers (“Portrait of Mark”), tease and play (“Ring Around Inez Rae”), circle people (“Big J”) and stretch their bodies (“Aloysius Beside a Victorian Chair”).

Miss Cleary says her liking for rats began with two she kept as pets in her Adams Morgan condominium at the beginning of her career, around 1973. (She and her artist husband, F. Steven Kijek, parent another pair.)

Self-portraits and portraits of others dominate the rest of the exhibit. In fact, the show could have been called “Manon Cleary: Portraits.”

The artist poses both nude and dressed in the adjacent Mysteries Room in works such as the moving “Graduation Day: Self-Portrait With Mother.” Sitting naked before her mother’s graduation picture, she shows herself separating from her parent.

Another autobiographical work is “Mystery Series No. 1- No. 5,” a five-paneled painting inspired by her 1966 Tyler School of Art master-of-fine-arts program stay in Italy. Miss Cleary says she modeled “No. 3” on what was supposed to be a bacchanalian initiation of virgins.

In “No. 2,” she clones herself into two gorgeous, light-struck female nudes while filling other works with bones.

The tour-de-force graphite drawings displayed in the Drawings and Photographs Room are the exhibit’s breathtaking high point. We could only wish for more.

Miss Cleary’s handling of graded graphite pencils for hard lines — which she often combines with large, softened areas achieved with dry cleaning pads — creates her often dazzling illusionism.

A good example is her working of light in “Steve’s Manon,” in which she photographed herself nude from above, then used the photo for the finished, softly stroked drawing. She says she used the pads for the nude while contrasting the hard-lined penciled design in the quilt beneath.

It’s a given that a retrospective should build up to a climax — such as the illusionist drawings here — which the last gallery of earlier “pop art” definitely does not do.

A shortcoming such as this applies not only to this show, but to the entire Washington art scene. It’s a shame that museums and galleries here often ignore the best local talent, resulting in underfunded alternative art groups such as the Washington Arts Museum showcasing them. An exception is “Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry,” currently showing in the nearby Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like Miss Cleary, Mr. Christenberry is a major figure on the local scene.

Miss Cleary and other Washington artists deserve a place in big, well funded museums. It’s not right that Mr. Christenberry is the only one currently making the scene.

WHAT: “Manon Cleary: A Retrospective”

WHERE: Pepco Building’s Edison Place Gallery, 701 Ninth Street NW

WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, through Oct. 27

TICKETS: Free

PHONE:202/462-0048

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