At Civilian Art Projects, photographers present interesting images without explication

February 27, 2013

The visible and the invisible circle each other warily in the photographs of Kate MacDonnell and Noelle K. Tan, currently at Civilian Art Projects. Both artists are storytellers of a sort, but with a preference for the cryptic. Neither, for example, identifies where her photos are made. Tan doesn’t provide any information about her images, which offer dramatic contrasts between black and white. MacDonnell’s color photos sport such titles as “first there is a mountain” — more poetic than descriptive.

MacDonnell’s selection, titled “Hidden in the Sky,” ranges from a long exposure of a nearly black firmament to “lightnings,” a thunderbolt-illuminated vista that looks like a more dramatic version of a Hiroshi Sugimoto seascape. Fireworks explode and black clouds billow in these photos, but their underlying hue is a serene blue.

Previously, Tan has shown photographs that are predominantly, even overwhelmingly, white. Her “An Excerpt From the Ongoing Anthology of Abandoned Photographs” shifts toward black, although sometimes punctuated by areas of intense white: an illuminated structure in the distance, streetlights reflected in a river. Although sometimes grouped in sets of two or three, the beautifully printed photos are part of what Tan calls “projects I purposefully will not finish.” Completing their narratives is left to the viewer.

Hidden in the Sky;An Excerpt From the Ongoing Anthology of Abandoned Photographs

on view through March 9 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 7th St. NW; 202-607-3804; www.civilianartprojects.com.


Kate MacDonnell’s “Pigeons are doves” on view at Civilian Art Projects. (Courtesy Kate MacDonnell and Civilian Art Projects)

At 4 p.m. on March 9, the two local photographers will discuss their work with Bernard Welt, a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Sonya Clark

In the African American community, “good hair” is a heavily laden phrase; it even inspired a half-comic, half-chagrined 2009 Chris Rock documentary called “Good Hair.” Sonya Clark’s show at Contemporary Wing, “Ahead of Hair,” doesn’t classify its subject as good or bad, but it does evoke a complicated cultural history with simple means. Made mostly of yarn, thread and combs — only a few pieces involve actual hair — constructions range from playful to disturbing.

A native Washingtonian who now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Clark sometimes toys with art history. Her show includes three small rectangles, made of combs and colored thread, that mimic Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” paintings. There’s also a raw canvas into which Clark has cut and woven a braid and a composition made of dozens of multi-layered black combs, arranged so that missing tines produce an off-center white cross.

Clark’s affinity for squares and crosses becomes more pointed when she weaves black thread into four differently patterned fields and then collects it into a knot. The work is titled “Quadroon,” an archaic racist term for someone who’s supposedly of one-quarter African heritage. Even more stark is “Cotton to Hair,” a bronze facsimile of a stem that holds two clumps of fiber, one of white cotton and one of black hair. It’s a small piece, but it evokes a large swath of the history of the American South.

Ahead of Hair

on view through Saturday at Contemporary Wing, 1412 14th St. NW; 202-730-5037; www.contemporarywing.com.

Contemporary editions

Neptune Fine Art and Robert Brown Gallery blend their holdings in “Impressed: Contemporary Editions by Masters of Line, Color and Composition.” The show includes familiar prints by some of the galleries’ regulars, including Mel Bochner and William Kentridge. But there’s also previously unseen work, as well as a few pieces by artists new to the galleries. One notable first-timer is Willem Boshoff, a South African artist who uses letterpress typography to make elegant compositions of twisting, overlapping lines of text.

The show’s timeline ranges from 2010 back to 1960, a year represented by Georges Braque’s “L’Echo,” a lovely aquatint still life. Among the other highlights are several black-and-white lithographs, notably “Sunflower,” by Ellsworth Kelly; these spartan representational images look nothing like the color-field paintings for which Kelly is known, or his smeary works on paper now on display at the National Gallery.

Kelly’s flower and fruit renderings fit well with another of the standouts, Kentridge’s “Black Iris,” a big white-on-black bloom whose petals are mottled with blue and a bit of pink. Offering a different sort of beauty, Bochner’s 1974-77 “Rules of Interference” arrays groups of silvery dots on a black ground; they suggest very tidy constellations, but they’re actually the numbers one to nine counted out in different patterns. This print is more austere than the colorful boxes of the artist’s 1990 “Floating World” series, five of which are on display, yet those shimmering dots add a sensuous appeal to Bochner’s numbers game.

Impressed

on view through March 9 at Neptune Fine Art and Robert Brown Gallery, 1662 33rd St. NW; 202-338-0353; www.neptunefineart.com and www.robertbrowngallery.com.

William D’Italia

After years as a landscape painter, William D’Italia found it a little more difficult to lug his gear outside. So he spent what his current show at the Watergate Gallery calls “A Year Indoors,” portraying the contents of his D.C. apartment. D’Italia is not a botanist — one of his pictures is titled “Plant of some sort on tripod” — but he does have a lot of foliage. Occasionally, the leaves and flowers are complemented by something silly, such as the toy dinosaur in “Trouble in Jurassic Park.” But the crux of these handsome works is the play of shadow and bright light; only one features a night sky, and many have a near-Mediterranean palette.

D’Italia complicates the simple paintings by depicting many of the scenes from above, which requires careful use of foreshortening to convey the vantage point. The perspective is clearly not intended to be God-like; it’s just the view of a guy of some sort with a paintbrush or watering can.

A Year Indoors

on view through March 9 at Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW; 202-338-4488; www.watergategalleryframedesign.com.

Amy Lamb, Anne Marchand

Shot with a macro lens, Amy Lamb’s close-ups of fronds and flowers are recognizable individually but also have universal qualities. Some of the photographs, on display at Heurich Gallery, look vaguely reptilian, but others suggest the arcs and spirals of ornate woodwork. Perhaps because they’re black and white, the images seem removed from the world of biology. Yet they’re not tricky, just exquisitely balanced between the specific and the archetypal.

Lamb’s photos are also a stark contrast to Anne Marchand’s vivid paintings, also at Heurich. The artist makes bold use of color in such freely gestural canvases as “Eye of Your Heart,” in which a thick line of peacock blue separates a volcano-red foreground from night-black top. A closer look reveals textures beneath the pigment: crayon and charcoal jottings, or berrylike shapes. Marchand’s work makes a strong first impression and then asks for further contemplation.

on view through Wednesday at Heurich Gallery, 505 Ninth St. NW; 202-223-1626, www.downtowndc.org/go/
the-heurich-gallery
.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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