Scenic Lederer Gallery revisits painful past

With inspired imagery and the dark canvas of American history, Keith Morris Washington's Lederer Gallery exhibit, "Within Our Gates: Site and Memory in the American Landscape," reconciles Hudson River School-like scenery with the unsightly subtext of Southern landscapes.

Washington paints beautiful images of trees from which men were hung and composes studies of fertile earth on which men were stoned. Each of his breathtaking portraits of the heartland is haunted by its ghosts, as each subject is the site of a lynching.

Upon entering the gallery, Washington's technique is the first element that strikes the audience. Each scene is partitioned into multiple quadrangles, either concentric or scattered. These internal frames serve as boundaries of weather or time, as Washington suggests a comparison between the two mood-inducers. In some of these works the internal frames are nested; increasingly dark as they reach their focal point as if marching through the progression of a storm.

One work ironically highlights, with blue sky, the tree where a lynching presumably occurred. Oranges freckle the mute tree face. Yet the thought remains - this picturesque quadrangle is severed by the overshadowing grays of the ominous past, which threaten to engulf the scene.

Many of the compositions utilize elements of the landscape, such as a hulking bridge or a menacing bend in the road, to enshrine the land's conflicted heart. In one piece, this heaving core takes the form of sunset-warmed freight cars that hum of mania-past. As the light guides the observer's gaze down the canvas, its reflections seep from rich grasses onto a burned coal floor. Throughout the room these man-made structures, including steel train tracks, concrete bridges and ranch houses, play yet another role.

Washington conveys the surreal of both nature and of these spaces in particular, through both Cubist and fluid styles. In contrast to his abstracted representations of nature, the industrial elements are all strictly outlined with photographic precision, maintaining the certainty of man's impact.

Yet within these rigid forms, their swirled innards transcend their borders to dream with the surrounding landscapes that share their astonished disbelief. These stoic structures hide within their objectivity, but they know what nature and time know. They have felt the haunt of the recurring American dream.

The Lederer Gallery will present the show through Feb. 22 - weekdays from noon to 4 p.m., weekends from noon to 6 p.m. Washington's show is both accessible and profound, moving in both waves of delight and sobriety. There will be an artist talk on Feb. 7 at 4 p.m. in the Lederer Gallery, with a reception following.