The three solo shows at Hemphill Artworks don’t add up to an overview of the evolution of abstract painting, and aren’t meant to. Still, the progression from Leon Berkowitz’s luminous austerity to Steven Cushner’s totemic imagery to E.E. Ikeler’s mixed-media intricacy does demonstrate intriguing generational shifts. Over a half-century of this trio’s nonrepresentational art, things get funkier and funkier.
Berkowitz (1915-1987) was a Washington color-field painter whose style is similar in general, but not in specifics, to that of other local colorists. Where Morris Louis and kindred D.C. artists stained unprimed canvas with diluted acrylic pigments, Berkowitz laid oil-paint glazes over a surface prepared with white gesso to add brightness. In his mature pictures, areas of borderless color appear to flow, blend and gleam.
The five large paintings in this selection, four from the 1970s and one from 1986, center on radiant reds and oranges, framed by blues and purples. The effect is to conjure splendid dawns, without depicting any literal aspect of sun or sky. Berkowitz wasn’t a traditional illusionist, but he captured light in a way that makes it seem entirely real.
Cushner (born 1954) is known principally as a painter, but his Hemphill show, the smallest of the three, consists of prints. These woodcuts are far from unprecedented, though, since they employ curving motifs like the ones the artist has long daubed on canvas. The abstract yet seemingly organic forms dovetail, interlock and sometimes appear to tie themselves into knots. The bending, roughly parallel lines produce a sense of motion, as does the mottled blue watercolor added to “Splash,” the only hand-finished print. The artist achieves a similar effect without painting in “Round and Round,” in which Easter-egg hues underlie an oval inscribed with fingerprint-like whorls. When wielding a brush, Cushner often allows the pigment to drip. Such improvisation is impossible when carving wood, and yet these prints reproduce his trademark spontaneity.
Although they’re fundamentally of a piece, Ikeler’s collage-paintings are crafted from many diverse ingredients, not all of them included in each artwork. The Brooklyn artist (born 1986) pits circles against grids and incorporates text and such 3-D elements as tiles and fabric nets. Fixed to aluminum panels, painted with metallic pigments and topped with glistening resin, the pictures can appear high-tech or homey, often at the same time. There’s even a sun-like piece that complements the Berkowitz canvases in the adjacent room.
Straight lines don’t feature in Ikeler’s work, since those grids are made of netting that warps and breaks as it stretches across the panels. The occasional phrases, mostly derived from truisms, are both a contrast to the abstract images and an acknowledgment of human communication breakdowns. (The artist calls her wordier pictures “fake protest signs.”) If Berkowitz’s and Cushner’s art seeks some sort of essence, Ikeler’s finds clarity in clutter. And yet the best of her paintings are sufficiently balanced to give their quilt-like compositions a powerful focus.
E.E. Ikeler; Steven Cushner; and Leon Berkowitz Through March 20 at Hemphill Artworks, 434 K St. NW. Open by appointment.