Saturday, May 31, 2008

Human bodies - naked, suited and buried - are celebrated in a trio of new exhibits at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. These diverse shows devoted to bawdy paintings by local artist Joe Shannon, dreamlike reliefs by the late Romanian-born artist Noche Crist and enigmatic sculptures by Baltimore-based Ledelle Moe represent nearly every aspect of the corporeal realm.

They reflect the idiosyncratic tastes of director and curator Jack Rasmussen, who isn’t afraid of bucking the art establishment to exhibit art from the fringes. His selections don’t usually follow the latest trends but more frequently resurrect regional talents, as evident in the current displays, with creative surprises in store.

Paired on the gallery’s top floor, the works by Mr. Shannon and Mrs. Crist depict sexually charged subject matter but from opposing male and female perspectives. A practitioner of what might be called macho realism, Mr. Shannon fills his canvases with businessmen, camping buddies and nude female models with painterly gusto.

Some of his most recent creations address the mythological tale of Actaeon, a hunter who encounters the goddess Diana bathing naked in a stream. Fearing Actaeon will boast of what he has seen, Diana turns him into a stag and he is killed by his own hounds.

Mr. Shannon grounds the myth in local scenery, comically grouping a woman with a gun-toting child, a stag-headed man and a mule on the C&O Canal towpath. He plays off its voyeuristic theme by including his self-portrait, which appears in nearly every painting in the show.

In “Fisherman at Seneca Creek,” the artist depicts himself fishing below a brick bridge where one of his ever-present female nudes stands with outstretched arms like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. This beautifully painted landscape is punctuated by barely discernible rectangles to frame certain sections of the scene. It is one of the quieter, subtler examples of Mr. Shannon’s masculine realism.

Across the hall, Noche Crist’s work also addresses the theme of female entrapment as expressed in Mr. Shannon’s mythical scenes but gives it a more fantastical spin. In her imaginary world, Helen Gurley Brown meets Hieronymus Bosch as sex kittens tangle with crocodiles, toads and other reptiles. A kind of twisted feminist art, they send the literal message that men are beasts.

Mrs. Crist died in 2004 at age 95, and this exhibit serves as a retrospective of her career. It includes whimsical watercolors from her youthful days in Romania before her marriage to Air Force officer David Crist and a version of the “Pinck Room,” a boudoirlike installation from 2002 centered on a bed of the artist’s making.

Don’t be put off by the kitschy cat-headed figure at the entrance. The show offers some engaging works, including Joseph Cornell-style boxes, which are hung at the back of the gallery. Video interviews with Mrs. Crist and her artist friends supply an informative background to her sensual, offbeat aesthetic.

As if to cover up all the naked women in these two exhibits, South African-born sculptor Ledelle Moe wraps bodies in concrete carapaces to suggest a darker vision of human existence. A grouping of her drawings in the lobby serves as a preface to a pair of sculptures in the sunken outdoor gallery on the side of the building nearest Ward Circle. These intense, crosshatched sketches reveal the roots of her three-dimensional art in studies of the human figure, some of them shrouded in black.

Ms. Moe constructs her industrial-strength sculptures from sections of concrete with the metal reinforcing bars around each piece left visible. In some places, the artist scratches the smooth surface with lines like her drawings, while in others, she squeezes the concrete through the wire armature to create an unfinished, textured effect.

The haunting pieces in the show, titled “Disaster I” and “Disaster II” and created earlier this year, suggest collapsed heroic monuments and ruins left by bygone civilizations. The larger sculpture more directly portrays a human corpse lying down with its extended legs clearly discernable. Its more abstract companion recalls a deformed hand grenade or swollen seed pod with just the mere suggestion of an organism beneath its rippling shell.

Visually, the two concrete sculptures complement the material and scale of the outdoor gallery. They are among the few installations to appear comfortable within this awkward space since the Katzen Center opened three years ago.

WHAT: “Joe Shannon: Realism Surrealism”; “Noche Crist: A Romanian Revelation”; “Ledelle Moe: Disasters”

WHERE: Katzen Arts Center, American University, Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues Northwest

WHEN: Through July 27; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday


PHONE: 202/885-1300


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