At Civilian Arts Projects show, signposts to urbanity’s beauty


Cynthia Connolly, "Stonewall Jackson Hotel, Staunton, VA," Feb. 17, 2009, silver gelatin print (Courtesy Cynthia Connolly and Civilian Art Projects)
May 31, 2012

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.

Play

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.)

There’s nothing scary about artist-architect Dickson Carroll’s brightly colored constructions, although a little knowledge of Victorian architecture is helpful to appreciate his models of a kiosk, an arch and an abode house that doubles as a stage set. Also included is a small version of a fanciful gazebo that was actually built at a D.C. playground; something in the same humor would look great at that park across the street from GRACE.

Zeitgeist III

“Too much” and “information” are both recurrent themes in contemporary art, so putting them together for D.C. Arts Center’s third “Zeitgeist” group exhibition is, well, timely. The show includes some paintings, but most of the work either uses or comments on today’s technology. Thomas Drymon’s portraits digitally slice faces into stripes and then combine them into a not-quite-unified whole. The many assemblages include two pileups of modern stuff: Elizabeth Morisette’s “Consume,” a cone of cut-together ID, credit and other plastic cards; and Claudia Aziza Hunter’s corner full of shredded paper, CD-Rs, dictionaries, flashlights and much more, titled “Too Much Information?” Two other pieces make patterns from data — D.C. crime rates and Capital Bikeshare use, respectively — and QR codes are used both as intended and as the inspiration for abstractions in various media. “Too Much Information” is thematically scattered, but it’s sort of fitting that the show is pulled in too many directions.

Fluid

As its name suggests, the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery specializes in art about illness and loss and the myriad reactions to them. “Fluid: Rhythms, Transitions and Connections” includes work by three visual artists, with some help by “a community of knitters” and two musicians, but the various pieces fit together well. Most of the art is handsomely minimalist, and both Rebecca Kamen and Lisa Hill have incorporated sound.

Hill’s “Words as Legacy — A Leaf of Knowledge: Summer Becomes Absurd” is a video projection of shards of poetry by the late Brendan Ogg, who succumbed to brain cancer at 20, cued to discreet guitar music by Mattson Ogg. Kamen’s delicate acrylic-on-mylar wall sculptures, which evoke human cells and their affinity to water, are accompanied by Susan Alexjander’s lapping “Fluid” soundscape. Francie Hester, who collaborated with Hill and others on one piece, also contributes the elegant “Domino Series,” a series of aluminum squares, linked two-by-two and painted with acrylic and wax. Their juxtaposition of mathematical and biological forms gently evokes the essence of things.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Cynthia Connolly, Pamela Hadley and Cara Ober

on view through June 16 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW; 202-607-3804; www.civilianartprojects.com.

Play

on view through June 9 at Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Reston; 703-471-9242; www.restonarts.org.

Zeitgeist III: Too Much Information?

on view through June 10 at District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW; 202-462-7833; www.dcartscenter.org.

Fluid: Rhythms, Transitions and Connections

on view through June 9 at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U Street NW; 202-483-8600; www.smithcenter.org/gallery.

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