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REVIEW: A Still-life Adventure – “The Juicy Tale of 110 NAFTA ORANGES” by Paul Richards

 This review appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, May 3, 1998

by PAUL RICHARD, Washington Post Staff Writer

“ONE HUNDRED AND TEN NAFTA ORANGES” by Clark Fox is a really juicy Washington painting. It makes you think of worker bees, & fruit stalls, and dining rooms in Georgetown, of Raphaelle Peale’s still lives, and Andy Warhol’s stacked commodities, and Seurat’s colored dots. that boldly colored picture, now on view at the Museum of contemporary Art, 1054 31st St. NW, in Georgetown’s Canal Square, is conservative and jaunty, and perfumed with citations. One of its allusions is to the Judgement of Paris [in which the golden apple was awarded to the fairest] . Another is to Tom Downing, the washington color painter. It also makes makes you think of the city’s grids and circles, and the taste for small French pictures shared by Duncan Phillips and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, and, of course, the sun.

The cheery mood it casts is one1998oranges of generous abundance, for Fox’s newest artwork is not just one picture. It is 110 oils, each 10 by 8 inches, unframed, hanging edge to edge. All are different. Each portrays an orange; some are as large as cantaloupes, no two are alike.  Clark Fox, 51, a painter who’s been working in the New York, Los Angeles, and Washington art world here, his shoulder to the wheel, for the past 30 years. Ever since he studied with Downing at the Corcoran School of Art, Fox has often worked in series-in which the hues keep changing while the organizing formats [discs and stripes in Downings case; oranges, windows and George Washingtons in Clark’s] stay pretty much the same. Like the other early color painters. Downing used unsized canvas and water-soluble acrylic, soaking in his colors one hue at a time. Fox’s touch is more Parisian, you might say more Phillipsian. They’re cross-hatchers and pointillists, and they don’t avoid the small.

When looking at Downing’s discs, or Kenneth Noland’s chevrons, or the tall stripes of Gene Davis, one never thinks to ask oneself which color likes best. The oranges are different. They demand connoisseurship, they make you use your taste. 

People feel obliged to pick their favorites, Fox says.”What’s strange is that their choices are always different… it’s like they’re selecting fruit at the Eastern Market,” Fox says. “They sort of squeeze each one.” Here’s how to evalute this object: First, provide each orange with its grid coordinates-say, starting at the upper left, numbering the colums 1 through 11,and the horizontals A through J-and then commence to judge. F8, you may notice, has a background that’s too Barbie-doll pink. You may may like that color: I rejected it.The fruit in G7 looks as if someone’s nibbled it. J2’s lack of freshness, as if it had been left on the shelf too long. But 55 is a winner. The orange it portrays has the gleam of burnished gold. And the highlights in G10 have the smoothness of a teardrop. And D8 floats mysteriously in a sort of deco space entirely its own.

Fox began producing these plenitudinous still lifes when Washington real estate developer Richard Bernstein, commissioned a suite of paintings to decorate his Lombardy and Scott circle Hotel. He requested fruit and George Washinton portrait paintings. the themes are not new ones.. Fruit still lifes were a staple of 19th-century American painting.19th-century French painting and 17th -century Dutch. Fox’s examples are surprisingly frame-responsive. When framed in stark white they assume the brisk authority of hard-edged abstractions. When framed in gilt they somehow call to mind highboys of waxed fruitwood in the parlors of the rich. Their parentage is mixed. It’s not easy to imagine a painting that’s a cross between a representational 1810 Peale and an abstract 1960s Downing, but a Fox orange is just such an object. Fox’s little canvases possess another quality worth noting. They’re wholly free of artist’s angst. It turns out that painting the same image you’ve painted many times before isn’t just a job, it’s a form of meditation.

“I paint them like a journeyman,” Fox says.

There are other works worth noting in MOCA’s current group show curated by Clark Fox. Michael Platt’s “The Blue Line,” which addresses blackness in America, is powerful and moving, takes 19 feet of wall space and cost $30,000 . Ron English’s “Cartoonia” [1998, $8,000] is a version of Picasso’s “Guernica” in which Petunia Pig leans out of the window, and the Tasmanian Devil plays the role of the bull. Allen D.Carter’s “Contour” [$6,000] is a portrait in his idiosyncratic style. Ted Field’s well-crafted wall-hung sculptures are poems about Scrabble and hold their own here- but “ONE HUNDRED AND TEN NAFTA ORANGES” is the work that steals the show.

The rather grandly titled Museum of Contemporary Art is open Wednesday through Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. 1054 31st. st. NW. Washington DC, 20007

“Paul Richards Collection”

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From the collection of Paul Richards

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