Review: CAG Arts 2012 at The House of Sweden

Last evening I dropped by the opening reception for the 2012 Citizens Association of Georgetown (“CAG”) art show, which this year is being held at The House of Sweden on the Georgetown waterfront.  This annual exhibition of artists who live/work in the neighborhood features a variety of works in different media: oils, acrylics, watercolors, mixed media, and so on.  Many of the items are for sale, though a few are on loan from private collections.

As anyone who trundles along to their local village art exhibition knows, oftentimes one is best advised to attend with lowered expectations.  When the village in question is Georgetown, with its affluent, well-educated, and well-traveled residents, the hope is that there will be at least a few good things on display, and in that respect this year’s CAG show did not disappoint.  Of the dozens of pieces on view, two artists working in very different styles and media caught my eye: realist painter Natasha Mokina, who works in oils, and watercolorist Cynthia Howar.

When I descended the steps from the entrance of The House of Sweden to the exhibition lobby area, my eye was caught by a display of four images projected onto monitors.  At first I assumed that this was video installation art, and I went over to examine one of the four images, which seemed to show a photograph of a vaguely familiar brick gateway and courtyard.  It was only when I got closer that I realized the image was  a photograph of a painting.  Just then the image changed, and it became apparent that the screens were showing a slide show of the works on display at the CAG show.

Intrigued, I went into the exhibition space to find the painting I had seen projected in the lobby.  It turned out to be a piece by painter Natasha Mokina which for some reason was sitting on the floor, and did not have a display card to indicate the title.  However, directly above it hung two other works by Mokina: “Georgetown-St. Petersburg”, and “Still Life with Hyacinth”.

With respect to the two landscape, or rather cityscape, pictures, I am not sure whether the scenes they depict, which for lack of a better description are sort of back-alley architectural scenes, are purely products of Mokina’s imagination, or whether they represent  actual places.  Regardless, they are stunning feats of technical virtuosity.  Mokina has the eye, and more importantly the hand, of a Dutch Old Master genre painter from the 17th century, and her attention to detail is simply extraordinary.  The worn bricks in various shades of terracotta, the blackened stone and concrete, and even the grays of the pavement are painstakingly rendered; it left me wanting to learn whether Mokina has ever painted recognizable scenes of vignettes in the village, such as the various bridges over the C&O Canal, or the courtyard around Dahlgren Chapel, or the grounds at Dumbarton Oaks.

Mokina’s skill was even more apparent in the aforementioned still life by her, which can be seen here in the slide show on her atelier site, though I must attest that the photograph of the painting on her website does not do the painting justice.  The assemblage of objects – the cut hyacinth from which the painting takes its name, a rustic “boule”, an old suitcase, a silk scarf, etc. – creates an absolute tour de force of painterly technique when seen in person.  For example, the biscuit tin sitting on top of the suitcase, which has an intricate paisley pattern in dark red and gold, actually “feels” like a metal container to your eyes when you see it in person, even though of course you cannot actually touch it.  This passage of the picture alone is visually stunning and, frankly, somewhat overwhelming.

In a completely different vein, but also demonstrating great facility with the brush, were two works by painter Cynthia Howar.  Howar’s watercolor technique is an interesting mix of light, transparent washes, and lushly colored, heavier brushstrokes.  Whereas Mokina is clearly influenced by Dutch art of the 17th century, Howar has her ancestry in French art of the early 20th century.  She has clearly spent some time looking at the Fauvists, if some of her palette choices are anything to go by.

Howar’s painting “Lacoste”, which depicts a view of the terraced Provençal hill town of that name, is a sunny, but dreamy piece that clearly required a great deal of thought in its execution.  The jumble of buildings that make up the village are not shown as solid objects, but rather as semi-transparent spaces, so that one can in a sense look through one building and get a sense of the shape of the building behind it.  This of course would  not be possible for the naked eye, and yet the mind suspends its disbelief to take in this kind of fantasy-reality.

The second painting of Howar’s in the show, entitled “Slow Creek at Hagley Mills”, shows a peaceful stream in Delaware with a mill house in the distance, surrounded by trees and landscape.  Like the “Lacoste” picture, there is again a dreamy, semi-transparent quality to this piece, that invites the viewer to relax and enjoy being outdoors on a pleasant afternoon.  Whereas the former painting is painted in that bright sunshine typical of the Mediterranean, the “Hagley Mills” painting has that very Atlantic East Coast quality where the colors are darker and richer as a result of the large number of trees that filter the light.  Howar acknowledges the influence the trees have on the scene by giving them an intense, spirited treatment with her brush, contrasting with the light touch used on representing the waters of the creek.

Of the remaining works in the show, some were considerably better than others, and I cannot in one blog post list all of the pieces I did like.  There were unfortunately a rather large number of pieces which might loosely be described as “Contemporary Art”, with a capital “C” – which of course is a nice way of saying, “Can’t Paint Or Draw”.    Other works demonstrated at least some competence in technique, but were visually unappealing.

One such piece which caught my eye, and which seemed to fall somewhere into a vaguely Neo-Surrealist category of mixed media, featured a long panel with a fairly realistic but unaccomplished portrait painting of Barack Obama on the left – appropriately enough – and a somewhat bent and corroding metal ventilation cover on the right.  The title of the work, “Untitled #4”, gave no clue as to what the point of it was, though frankly I could not care less.  As the center of champagne socialism in the Nation’s Capital, Georgetown could hardly be expected to throw a party without demonstrating some obsequiousness to the Dear Leader.

That being said, if you find yourself in the village over the long holiday weekend, it would definitely be worth your time to drop by the exhibition and admire and/or purchase some of the works on display.  The paintings of both Mokina and Howar are definitely worth a detour, and you may come across some pieces in the small exhibition which you like even more than I do.  Plus, The House of Sweden itself is a terrific place to visit, if you have not done so previously – but then, I like being around Swedes whenever I get the chance, so admittedly I am biased.

The CAG Art Show runs through this Monday, February 20th; admission is free and open to the public from 11 am to 5 pm each day.

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