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TO FEB. 12

It’s hard to make pictures of flowers matter. And though Martin Kotler’s paintings at Hemphill Fine Arts marry a facile touch to delicate observation—think John Singer Sargent—his small-scale floral studies fail to impress. Grouped in the front room are 14 of them, all dashed off in the same perfunctory alla prima naturalism. Despite the artist’s evident skill, these pieces smack of suburban outdoor art fairs. More compelling are Kotler’s nine studies of D.C. row-house exteriors. These also look to have each been constructed in one sitting—albeit slowly, with controlled, fine brushwork around phone lines and tree branches. Bare canvas or linen peeks through at unfinished edges, suggesting spontaneity, but Kotler’s use of heightened color seems formulaic by contrast—his skies are nearly all the same improbable light cobalt; his opaque, saturated red and pink buildings clash with leaden passages of gray and white. Only when he leans on understatement does the color work, as in the muted After the Rain, which combines toned-down hues with spare lines. Showing with Kotler is John Dreyfuss, whose seven meticulously constructed sculptures (three untitled works are pictured)—mostly in stainless steel and aluminum—provide a bit of art-deco delectation. Trinity (Axe), for example, is a burnished, gently curving 24-inch axe blade that could easily have adorned the desk of a triumphant industrialist from Atlas Shrugged. The pairing of Dreyfuss and Kotler is apt: They both gravitate toward a sort of classicism, and they attend almost exclusively to skill and craft. But this show illustrates that skill alone can’t surmount anachronism or sidestep thought. The show is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, to Saturday, Feb. 12, at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 342-5610. (Jeffry Cudlin)