Cynthia Connolly likes old stuff, especially if it’s in the middle of nowhere. The local photographer has long made drive-by images of roadside outposts, pictures that could be said to express either the suffocating isolation or timeless purity of blue-highways America. (Maybe both.) She shoots in black-and-white, and on film, depicting places that time forgot in a format that’s almost as close to being lost. So it’s interesting that “Letters on Top of Buildings,” her photographic suite at Civilian Art Projects, is a little more urban. The 12 pictures show Washington, New York and New Orleans, as well as smaller burgs, and are arranged on the wall with an almost L’Enfant-like sense or order.
To say that these images are “urban” doesn’t mean they bustle. Shot from street level, the photos gaze upward and capture mostly air. There are no people, just signs — not always in their entirety, and sometimes seen unreadably from the rear — as well as clouds and the occasional set of wires. The pictures are as evocatively empty as Connolly’s photos of ice machines and telephone booths; they find bits of big-sky country in such small towns as Staunton, Va. The artist extols the signs as “beautiful typographic structures,” which suggests she sees their careful placement on the wall not as architecture, but as a magazine layout. Of course, these days magazines are almost as quaint as black-and-white film or the sign atop Staunton’s Stonewall Jackson Hotel.
Civilian is also showing a more modernist photographic work, Pamela Hadley’s “14,000 Feet,” and Cara Ober’s “Pop Deco,” a selection of pattern paintings. Hadley’s piece is derived from a 20-second bit of cellphone video, showing dark clouds outside an airplane window. Dramatically slowed, the swirling clouds seem to do more rather than less; it’s as if every possible billow was hidden within those few moments.
Ober’s work, mostly executed in metallic-toned acrylics on canvas or wood panels, draws on the decorative arts. Her motifs suggest Victorian fabric designs, Islamic manuscripts and microscopic views of nature. Four drawings on paper cut in Grecian-urn shapes are more ironic; they add Cindy Sherman-like epigrams and images of consumer products to Ober’s repertoire.
The Greater Reston Arts Center is across the street from a park that, on a recent day, was full of preschoolers. But the work in “Play,” the center’s current group show, is not primarily for kids. The colors are bright and the forms direct, but the sensibility is often adult. The split is exemplified by Marco Rando’s three large sculptures in the form of a human hand; all are filled with dyed sand, but only one is a sandbox, with blue grains that can be fingered or raked. In the other two, the contents are multicolored and arranged in patterns that suggest Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas. (There’s also a smaller, touchable piece with yellow sand in a side room.)
Although the work in “Play” is far from solemn, it sometimes evokes lingering childhood anxieties. Ed Biese’s paintings and masks, showing semi-human bears and other critters, suggest grown-up threats. (Especially that dadlike bear with the knife.) Biese’s work, which has an underground-comix vibe, includes a female nude, and there are more of those in Ming-Yi Sung Zaleski’s fabric constructions, which also include a selection of knitted fruit with teeth. (Is one of them the feared papaya dentata?) Jacqueline Levine’s “The Temptation” is an eight-foot-high cartoon monster standing menacingly over a pile of balls like the ones in ball pits at Chuck E. Cheese’s. (Both Levine and another “Play” participant, Calder Brannock, recently had shows at Flashpoint.)