Storytelling was blackballed from visual art by the 20th-century avant-garde, but it’s been creeping back in. Although the old narratives haven’t returned, today’s artists are keen to recount lesser-known tales, or recombine familiar archetypes in unexpected ways. Both things happen in “Small Stories,” an intriguing show of precise, but not exactly realistic, paintings at McLean Project for the Arts.
Nora Sturges, Gregory Ferrand and Matthew Mann all use styles derived more from illustrations than Renaissance canvases. Their work is cartoonish but impeccably detailed, representational yet eccentric. Sturges’s little pictures are blankly surreal, depicting vacant landscapes in American suburbia as well as what appear to be Old World deserts. Rendered in muted earth or snow-country tones, the paintings often fix on institutional buildings and mass-produced objects, including parking garages and precast-concrete barriers. The eerie “Tank” focuses on what seems to be a large shipping container, but the formal way it’s positioned suggests a sort of temple. Perhaps that’s how future anthropologists will see such now-commonplace places and things.
Ferrand’s paintings, which include a series of portraits, conjure the look of old Hollywood. The women have neatly bobbed hair and the men wear suits and ties — even when they’re running toward an airplane in one of the show’s most dramatic works, the red-tinted “Explosion! If only they knew what they know now.” Whether dream, hallucination or disaster-movie frame, the scene teasingly reveals that Ferrand knows what time it is: The plane in the background is a vintage propeller-driven model, but the woman at the center of the composition is clutching both a small dog and a smartphone.
Although his style is not classical, Mann flaunts his familiarity with Old Masters. Many of his pictures emphasize the intricate folds of flowing drapery, whose depiction is a hallmark of traditional painting. He partially paints over prints of famous artworks, and he remakes Fragonard’s “The Reader” with the young woman’s face replaced by a blue grebe’s (among other alterations). Mann’s magnum opus here is “Passion of St. George,” whose image stretches across four canvases of different shapes and sizes. The saint doesn’t appear, but there is a “Dear George” letter from the princess: She has run off with the dragon. That’s not how the fable used to go, of course, but the puckish rewrite is one way “Small Stories” justifies telling tales.
Rosemary Luckett, whose “Altered Terrain” is displayed along the ramp leading to the arts center’s main gallery, also takes a playful approach, but with serious intent. The collaged drawings depict a world where technology threatens everything that lives — even those creatures who designed and built the SUVs, bulldozers and industrial derricks that are among the show’s motifs. Despite ominous imagery, the tone isn’t grim. The artist is partial to rubber ducks, and she builds a forest from tree-shaped air fresheners and shows a frog surrounded by microphones, ready to deliver the message of these works: What Luckett calls the “web of life” is dangerously frayed. After walking to the McLean Project for the Arts from the closest Metrobus stop, count the SUVs in the parking lot.