The Washington Somnambulists: A parody by an anonymous author

One of Kevin's more "sleepwalkerish" images (From Under the Volcano, 1990)

Image: one of Kevin's most "somnambulistic" works, "Number 8, From Under the Volcano," 1990.

A BRIEF CONVERSATION ON THE WASHINGTON SOMNABULIST MOVEMENT between independent San Francisco curator Elizabeth Ammons and Pittsburgh journalist Maximillian Frantz

Reprinted from the internet, by permission

MF: What makes you think you've uncovered a significant movement in the visual arts in the nation's capital?

EA: As an art historian, and a bit of a detective, it's a pleasure to uncover a significant trend in the visual arts that has taken place under the noses of an overpaid and overly elitist arts bureaucracy. The Washington area has five major museums, three publicly and two privately funded, that must have a total of thirty handsomely paid modern curators and curatorial assistants, who spend most of their time wheedling money from their travel budgets so they can go look at art in other places. This group of painters has been flying under the radar for thirty years or so, producing handsome and intellectually stimulating representational work in the modernist tradition, scratching out a living, but never attracting the sort of national, or even regional attention that it deserves.

MF: Ouch! That's a pretty scathing condemnation of Washington museums. What makes this group -- if you can call it that -- unique? And why do you call them Somnambulists?

EA: There are several points that set them apart from most of the painters working in the US today. One: They're representational painters (I hesitate to use the word "realists"), who made the jump from abstraction when that movement was going great guns. But they still embrace modernism. They acknowledge Cezanne and the Cubists, and have really done their homework in Washington's museums. Most of the other so-called realists today have totally ignored most of the art of the twentieth century, and have jumped from French Salon painting straight into their current mode of expression. Two: There is a dreamy, almost, but not quite surreal quality that infects their work, hence the name Somnambulists. Unlike de Chirico and Delvaux, they didn't strive for an airless, timeless quality in their painting. It just happened. Three: There's a polished quality or fetish finish on the work, and usually a balance of color that sets them apart from the herd. There's none of the Philadelphia splish splash or a strictly photographic color sense. There's an unwillingness to flaunt their neuroses that you see in some other Washingtonians. There's an intangible quality to the best of their pictures that is almost impossible to describe. It's sort of like the charisma or whatever that sets some actors, like Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal apart from most of the rest of Hollywood. They've got IT, but nobody can explain what IT actually IS. As to the color, I think it comes out of the Washington Color Painting tradition, but is actually more sophisticated than what most of the colorists were capable of.

MF: Who are they, and what connection do they have to each other? How and when did this thing get going and what sustains it?

EA: Good question. The Somnambulist movement started actually in the mid sixties in the Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom areas of Washington, and with a little back and forth between New York, and in some cases, Pennsylvania, has maintained a base here. Players come and go, but have remained in touch with each other, through studio visits, phone calls and the internet, over the years. The two main players, Michael Clark and Joseph White first met in 1968, when Clark was a third generation Washington Color painter doing shaped, stained canvases in acrylic, and White was a psychedelic abstract painter from San Francisco working in oil. They both met Robert Stark, who was working as a fine art photographer, in the tradition of his teacher Minor White, and had just moved east from Colorado. Clark's younger brother Mark was still muddling his way through art school at the Corcoran with John Grazier at the time, and the Clarks shared a studio and living space with Hilary Hynes, who has always been on fringe of the movement. His work has always been a little more metaphysical than the rest. Hynes was also doing shaped abstraction at the time. Kevin MacDonald and Michael Clark started hanging out slightly later, and Clark's pencil drawings had a profound effect of MacDonald's early work. Michael Clark and White lived together on the lower East Side of New York in the 71 and 72. By 1974 the scene had pretty much centered near the Phillips collection, at a loft over a bar on Connecticut Avenue. The loft, which was rented by Stark and his then wife Lucy Clark (no relation to the other Clarks), and later by Mark Clark, was the epicenter of Ben Bow pointillism, which was practiced by the Clark brothers and Stark. Over the Ben Bow was a long moveable feast of ideas, with people constantly coming and going, a lot of partying and painting, of nurturing and encouraging. It was there that Stark took up painting over photography, that Lucy Clark learned watercolor, and Mark Clark learned oil painting from Joe White, Hynes (a restorer) taught the others about museum quality materials and techniques. MacDonald, who was working at the Phillips in the early seventies, practically lived there, as did Michael Clark, who also had an apartment in New York. It was there that Yolanda Shashaty and George Singely, both abstractionists at the time, encountered the new realist painting that they embraced later, only after they moved to Manhattan. A couple of other practitioners of the new style were James Sundquist, who showed at Harry Lunn's Georgetown Gallery, along with the elder Clark, MacDonald and Grazier, and Susan Powell, who was mentored by Michael Clark, and later showed on R Street.

I don't think the Somnambulists have ever all exhibited their work together in one place. There was a show that showcased some of the group at the now defunct Middendorf/Lane Gallery in 1979. The Washington New Realist show also included Rebecca Davenport, Manon Cleary and Val Lewton, who are outside the movement, but included Grazier, MacDonald, Sundquist and the younger Clark brother. The Corcoran Gallery's response to that exhibition showed the elder Clark, and MacDonald plus Cleary and Davenport, but excluded Mark Clark and Joe White because of friction between the head curator and the dealer Middendorf. The Washington Light show at Williams College Museum of Art in about 1983 or 84 showed Lucy Clark and Mark Clark and Kevin MacDonald together with DC abstract painters. Members of the group have constantly traded work and swapped ideas. A very good exhibition could be put together from just the work that they've acquired from each other over the years.

MF: I'm getting dizzy trying to learn all the names of the players. Is there some sort of scorecard to keep all of this straight? And how do you keep these guys separate from all the other DC painters, like Carlton Fletcher, Manon Cleary, Rebecca Davenport, Jay Burch, Val Lewton, Fred Folsom or Judy Jashinsky?

EA: I'm afraid there's no scorecard yet. One of the things that sets the Somnambulists apart from the rest of the herd is there's been an almost total lack of humans in the Somnambulists' work, with the exception of portraiture -- but Somnambulist portraits treat the figure more like architecture than flesh. The other is most of the Somnambulists had to teach themselves or each other how to draw and paint in the representational style. When most of them were going to school what the art schools were teaching was how to put on masking tape or how to pour paint out of a bucket or put it on with a mop or a roller. There is a reinvention of figuration going on in their work that you don't see in the paintings of the other people that you mention. The abstract organization of the picture plane also varies from the other Washingtonians, and the color sensibilities are totally different in most cases. Also you might say that there's often a sense of unease or awkwardness that's perceptible in the Somnambulist painting, that you don't see in the work of painters who are convinced of their "rightness," who think they're part of the unbroken tradition of realist illustration that runs from Rembrandt through Andrew Wyeth. You don't see glib brushwork. You do see a lot of premeditation, and occasional allusions to the art of the past, and a greater degree of stillness, an almost stoned quality lacking in the work of the others. There's also a weirdly subversive element in some of the work, and a intellectualism that lies way beneath the surface.

MF: Stoned quality? Subversive elements? Are you saying these guys are some kind of stoned communist painting society?

EA: Not exactly. For most of the Somnambulists, there was some experimentation with pharmacopeia in the sixties, and to a greater or lesser extent some dabbling in leftist politics at the same time. If anything, there's a spiritual, almost anarchistic quality to the work. I think most of them find the act of painting extremely meditative. Why would they need drugs? Most of their best painting is about harmonious color and composition. That they've never formed themselves into a cohesive capital G Group, and sponsored their own exhibitions, or issued manifestoes, seems to be in keeping with their painting. As a "family", you'd have to say they're pretty dysfunctional. But there is the genetic imprint. I'd have to say the anti-authoritarian nature of their personalities has not done their careers any favors. I don't think you'll see their work featured in American Art Quarterly any time soon or in a group show at the Hirshhorn in my lifetime.

MF: So, if these guys are so good, why aren't they famous? Most of them don't even have regular dealers in DC.

EA: I think, for the most part, they haven't pursued fame. Most have had modest individual successes, and almost all are in museum collections through out the country. Their work, for the most part has kept evolving, and change is one of the things that curators and dealers and collectors fear the most. Michael Clark, who started as something of a pointillist, is now doing mostly some sort of Post Pop/ Post Punk grafitti influenced stuff, alongside his still life and portrait work, which is still quite strong. Robert Stark, now living in rural Pennsylvania, has moved from Ben Bow pointillist landscape to landscape influenced abstraction. MacDonald's work has gone through darker and lighter phases. Joe White has gone through a period of simplified compositions that were almost total abstractions of steps, but is once again doing complex paintings based on photos from his world travels. Mark Clark and Lucy Clark continue to experiment on a variety of subjects, including occasional figures. John Grazier, who is notoriously difficult for dealers to work with, now lives in Pennsylvania and sells his paintings over the internet. Singley and Shashaty currently live in Manhattan, and pursue their craft largely in isolation from other New York trends. Their work continues to influence, and be influenced by some of the other Somnam bulists, who visit them at their studio in Brooklyn. If you could see a large body of their work together, you'd be able to see the connections as easily as reading a subway map. None of these painters has a teaching job, and many have had to support themselves by their wits or stick to day jobs to get by. But, for thirty years they've kept doing it, while most of their peers, the curatorial pick hits, flavors of the month and one hit wonders have fallen by the wayside. They've been moving steadily in a forward direction, basically like sleep walkers, and for the most part, their painting has been improving and gaining momentum. I think most curators see representational painting as a "retardataire" movement, and can't separate these goats from the rest of the sheep still dabbing paint to canvas. In the US there's a bias against modernist representational painting that goes back to the Diego Rivera mural destruction at Rockefeller Center, a sort of fear if you will. I think Somnambulist work would be more warmly received in Europe. ​

MF: How do you propose to correct this oversight?

EA: Well, this discussion is a start.

Elizabeth Ammons is currently curating an exhibition of the Park Avenue Cubist, George L.K. Morris, for a museum in the West.

Maximillian Frantz is the author of "Not Quite Forgotten", about the German American still life painter Severin Roesen, who was active in Williamsport, Pennsylvania between 1848 and 1870.

This "conversation" took place over the internet February 22, 2005.


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