FREEZE FRAME Burleson’s Diving Warbler with Insect.

ACUTE OBSERVER Wolfe’s Growing Old Gracefully — 1879.
Tom Wolfe is famous for authoring the nonfiction books The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as the novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. And for wearing white suits, sometimes with matching homburg hat and gloves.

Mostly forgotten is that, from his first job as a reporter at a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1956, he drew illustrations to go with many of his essays. "In Our Time" at the National Museum of American Illustration (492 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, through September 5) rounds up cartoons that he drew for Harper's magazine in the late '70s and that were eventually collected in his 1980 book of the same name. Lo and behold, they're actually quite good.

Wolfe's talent for drawing is apparent in sharp caricatures of presidents Reagan (friendly oaf dwarfed by suit collar), Johnson (pinched, craggy guy with giant ears and tie), Carter, and Ford. Favoring a scratchy pen line, Wolfe's style seems a cross of David Levine's caricatures with Jules Feiffer's classic Village Voice strips, though Wolfe is not as sharp a draftsman as those masters.

But Wolfe is an acute observer of social mores. The Famous Writer On the College Lecture Circuit depicts a scrawny, balding author in a turtleneck acting the sensitive artist type when his mind is really on how to maneuver himself into bed with the adoring — and busty — college gals in the audience. The Evolution of the Species series depicts Growing Old Gracefully — 1879, with an old gent in a top hat and three-piece suit thinking "as long as they don't think I'm poor" compared with a look-alike playing tennis in 1979 thinking "as long as they don't think I'm old." His series The Seven Graces of New York features a Lilliputian couple being tossed about by a maitre d', a dock porter, and so on. The symbolism is unclear, but the unhappy look on the face of the old lady in the back of a cab driven by a yelling lunkhead is priceless.

What defines Wolfe's drawings is that, like Feiffer, he's an artist firmly ensconced at the heart of hipsterdom who uses that prime vantage point to launch acid darts at other hipsters he identifies as posers. His series The Bohemian Hedge includes a sketch of a minister in a casual sweater picking a banjo with a hippie in the church's activities room. Wolfe's aim is deadly true. But it can come off as snobby sour grapes when, say, the artist is affecting a trademark white suit. But no one ever said Wolfe was one for humility.

SHARP CARICATURE Wolfe’s Pre-Show Blow-Dry.
At the Newport Art Museum (76 Bellevue Avenue, through August 17), Trent Burleson, who has taught at Rhode Island School of Design since 1974, presents his exhibit "Birds and Other Metaphors." The show includes blonde Madonnas inspired by the high Italian Renaissance works of Botticelli, Raphael, and da Vinci, as well as oil paintings of warblers and goldfinches diving after berries that can bring to mind the nature studies of John James Audubon.

Sometimes Burleson falters. Too little might happen in the bird scenes. Or the paintings can seem stiff like stuffed birds in natural history museum dioramas. The most fascinating of the bird paintings are, like Audubon's (though without his adherence to facts), filled with incident. Bird Seeks Insect depicts a yellow bird perched on a twig, bending its body dynamically back and upside-down to snare at a bug among gold-green leaves.

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