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The Art League is one of the most respected independently operated art schools in the country. Founded in 1954, it has provided both a gateway for artists in the D.C. area and a center for learning that fosters a knowledge and appreciation of artistic practice for nearly 7,000 students each year. In many ways, the Art League is an essential part of the cultural fabric of our region, recognized for its community outreach and its longevity as a nonprofit.
All sugary (but honest) accolades aside, “Influence and Inspiration”—-an exhibition of the work of 57 former and current instructors, at the Athenaeum through September 21—-is a general overview. With one piece by each artist, the exhibition commemorates the anniversary of the Art League by highlighting its “finest teaching faculty over 60 years.” But what criteria were used to determine who have been its finest teachers? And does presenting its finest teachers assume that these are also the finest artists that have passed through the Art League? Included in the exhibition are catalogs for the upcoming year of classes and a slickly produced video of teachers and students espousing the inspiring effects of art and its education, lending an atmosphere much more like an open house than a cohesive art exhibit.
Of course, given the breadth and number of works, this is not an easy exhibit to organize in a space that was not originally intended to be an art gallery. The Athenaeum is a beautiful hall, but its high wainscoting places the works well above eye level. Installed salon style, some works are too high to even properly engage with, but given the exhibition’s survey nature, perhaps it hardly matters. Works by Chuck Johnson, Sam Gilliam, and Lou Stovall are placed prominently at the beginning of the exhibition. Johnson, who passed away last month at the age of 90 after only recently retiring as a longtime Art League educator, is a clear choice to be held in such high regard. Gilliam and Stovall are indicated in the exhibition press as particularly bright spots meant to entice viewers, having been key players in what is still widely regarded as D.C.’s contribution to modern art: The Washington Color School. Viewing their work is a delight; with the natural light flooding through the stately windows of the Athenaeum, viewers can experience the artists’ mastery over the subtly shifting dynamics that transform the spaces between light and color.
Many current instructors are not included in the exhibition, and the inclusion of previous instructors Gilliam and Stovall seems to imply that selection was weighted toward the reputation of the artists beyond the classrooms of the Art League. This moves viewers further away from the artists’ inspiration as educators and closer to their acknowledgment as the Art League’s “stars.” Apart from selection, emphasis is placed on proficiency rather than profundity. Watercolors by Deborah Ellis and Ted Betts, exquisitely detailed yet gestural, were pleasant to view. Kurt Schwartz’s “Still Life” combines precision with brilliant color and texture, and Diane Tesler’s “Edgar’s House” recalls the nostalgic architecture of an Edward Hopper painting.
Any edgier works that step beyond technical skill to offer a highly individualized account of the artist’s world are by Rosemary Luckett and Carol Dupre. Luckett’s surrealist collage drawing “Coaled, Coaled Heart” possibly references an uneasy codependency between self and the environment. Dupre’s ambiguity is even more pronounced in the painting “Baltic Sea,” creating an unpleasant, muddied vision of an unknowable yet emotional narrative that compels a longer viewing experience. Unfortunately, the works fall flat in this context, overwhelmed by the large array of prettiness that surrounds them. The Athenaeum exhibition is, more accurately, a retrospective dog-and-pony show of its most popular artists across the mediums taught (with a puzzling lack of any photography). But likely, there is no exhibition that could adequately convey the influence of the Art League upon its students, or its importance as an introduction to the visual arts for our community.
The show runs through September 21 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. Open Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays noon–4 p.m., and Saturdays 1–4 p.m. Free.