Modern art has a century-old affinity with heavy industry, dating to the Futurists. More recently, many galleries — including such local ones as Connersmith, Long View and Industry — have snagged chic industrial spaces. Still, it’s unusual to enter an arts space whose air is filled with the scent of oil and the clacking of compressors. “Andrei Molodkin: Crude” makes the American University Museum sound and smell like a refinery.
In addition to being pungent, Molodkin’s art is bold and direct. Oil is the lifeblood of international commerce, so the Russian artist pumps it through clear acrylic forms, like fluid through a model of the human circulatory system. Oil is also a geopolitical prize that fuels wars, so Molodkin sends it flowing through plastic renderings of such words as “democracy” and such icons as the head and hand of the Statue of Liberty. The latter forms are observed by video cameras that project images of the oily icons, doubling the effect.
The artist, who spends much of his time in Paris, doubts that the United States can balance its ideals with its appetite for oil. His show includes an image of Barack Obama that twists an upbeat slogan into a threat with one of Molodkin’s favorite words. (It’s a four-letter vulgarity, not of Slavic origin, that could be called crude.) But there’s an unflattering image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well, and the show’s largely English text includes the mostly Cyrillic logo for Gazprom, the Russian natural-gas behemoth.
When taunting presidents, corporations and unrealized principles, Molodkin might seem to be reacting to the daily news. But this show — sponsored by two local galleries, Blue Square and M. Kelner, along with Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art and a London-based foundation, a\political — is also personal. As a Soviet soldier, Molodkin was assigned to a train carrying gasoline in Siberia and was routinely coated in oil. In that period, he began drawing with standard-issue Soviet Army ballpoint pens, which inspired one aspect of his current work. He still uses blue ballpoints, exhausting thousands to complete one of his large, detailed drawings. If the scratchy medium makes these renderings look rough, it’s just another way that Molodkin plays with meanings of the term “crude.”
on view through Thursday at the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202-885-1300,
Oil derives from once-living creatures, a transformation Molodkin has explored in works not included in his AU show. Across town, at Industry Gallery, Tobias Klein and his collaborators are conducting a parallel experiment. “The Invisible Human” grows crystals on MRI images of a frozen corpse that was sliced into 1,871 segments. (The cadaver came from a convicted murderer, executed in Texas in 1993, who donated his body to science.) Regrowing a sort of body from the segments of a carcass is the project of Ordinary Klein, a partnership between Studio Tobias Klein and Ordinary Ltd., two London design firms.
The crystallization process mirrors what happens in a body that’s severely chilled or dehydrated: Cells, which are predominantly water, begin to form ice- or salt-based deposits, usually with fatal results. At Industry, two sets of mesh screens — one imprinted with skeletal cross sections, the other with ones from internal organs — are submerged in tanks filled with a saturated solution. Crystals coalesce on the forms until the screens are encrusted and removed. Spectators, either on the premises or using a Web site, can affect the process by manipulating the liquid’s temperature.
What results, of course, are not slivers of a sparkling new human body; crystals grow in very different patterns than skin or muscle. This eerie work is more a meditation on death than life. But the way the crystals form does have an unpredictable, organic quality. “The Invisible Human” shows how much the development of the human body is like other biochemical processes, and how different.
Observers are also invited to participate in “Virtual Sunset,” another piece in process at Industry. Studio Tobias Klein has installed a clump of clear plastic tubes that dangle from the ceiling, with images projected on both sides. One shows a sunset over Washington; the other is a real-time sunset from somewhere in the world, derived from photographs uploaded to the project’s Web site. Thus the work is both global and site-specific.
Given the Internet-era ability to watch many distant events in real time, the simultaneity of “Virtual Sunset” isn’t startling. But Klein adds another level to the piece with the tubes, arranged with a sort of clearing near the center. From inside this forestlike environment, views of the projected photographs are divided and diffused, as if seen through a prism. The crowd-sourced sunset might be a planetary event, but from inside the installation, the perspective is utterly individual.
on view through March 20 at Industry Gallery, 1358 Florida Ave. NE, Suite 200; 202-399-1730,
There are also intriguing paths to the interior in Project 4’s “Adaptation,” in which two of the three artists have installed pieces that force viewers to bob and weave. Victoria Greising’s vividly colored “three point zero” is assembled from thread, used clothing and bungee cords, affixed to the wall and a stair railing; to fully experience the enveloping profusion, the viewer must enter it. Caitlin Masley’s “Neo Habit,” a garden of black neo-Cubist shapes, can be comprehended from outside, but it helps to tiptoe through the painted foam-core topiary. Lisa Kellner’s three works, made principally from colored-silk sacs, are handsome but lack the presence of Greising’s and Masley’s pieces.
on view through Saturday at Project 4 Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, third floor; 202-232-4340,
Working on the beach in the Rockaway area, Jimmy Miracle constructed a series of environments that can be seen in photographs at Flashpoint Gallery. The show, “Wearing Ethereal,” includes some intriguing sculptural assemblages but consists mostly of images of the local artist’s temporary earthworks. These are in the tradition of Britain’s Andy Goldsworthy, except that where that sculptor works with only organic materials, Miracle mixes driftwood, shells and bird carcasses with man-made stuff, mostly garishly hued plastic. Something of a neat freak, the artist not only places the synthetic objects in orderly alignments, but also arranges them by color. These piles of plastic near the ocean inevitably evoke the massive garbage patch that floats in the mid-Pacific. Miracle might be more interested in staging private rituals than in delivering environmental warnings, but he does conjure the threat of nonbiodegradable trash in “Passage,” in which a wave of plastic objects seems to gush through a rocky cleft.
on view through Saturday at Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St. NW; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/
Jenkins is a freelance writer.