The traditional idea of sculpture is of shapes chiseled out of — or, more poetically, discovered within — blocks of stone. There are a few modernist examples of that approach in “Form Transformed: Five Sculptors,” at Touchstone Gallery. In two of Michelle Frazier’s small pieces, human heads emerge from alabaster, a relatively soft mineral, and both she and Janathel Shaw fabricate heads in ceramic stoneware. But contemporary artists are more inclined to remix and remake than to craft a single image out of a single material, so it’s unsurprising that the other participants see sculpture as a sort of collage and allow found objects to partially dictate the finished entity.
In her “Vestige” series, Dana Brotman decorates dried Kentucky gourds with totemic designs that suggest African and American Indian folk art. The original shapes clearly influence the process, yet the results are diverse. One of the pieces turns a gourd into a reptilian head, with a long curved stem that neatly impersonates a tongue. The others, including one that hangs like an unbalanced pendulum, are more abstract.
But all show a willingness to collaborate with nature rather than attempt to command it.
Brotman’s work fits well with that of Janet Wheeler, whose “Vessels” incorporate bamboo, paper, feathers, bark and fiber from raffia palm trees. One of the artist’s pieces is in the vein of a previous Touchstone show, “Nests with a Twist”: It mounts a flurry of feathers, black with hints of brown, atop a bamboo and wooden-block staff that’s painted all black. If the feathers’ shimmering hues are that construction’s most striking attribute, some of Wheeler’s other new assemblages, colored with iridescent oil sticks, are as vivid as anything that might be found in a nest or garden.
Rosemary Luckett also employs found objects but to tell specific stories. “My Immigrant Grandmother” is an old-fashioned, hand-cranked washing machine, adorned with family names and multiple printings of the same photo of a woman (probably grandma). “Gun Gospel Guy” combines such artifacts as shell casings, plastic toy guns and a small American flag on which the artist has written statistics about firearms violence. It’s three-dimensional but less sculpture than editorial cartoon.
On view through Feb. 2 at Touchstone Galley, 901 New York Ave. NW; 202-347-2787; www.touchstonegallery.com
In “Kaddish and Narratives,” Gerald Wartofsky recounts a very personal tale: that of his wife, Karin Vartowski, who died in 2011. She was a dancer and choreographer — and thus, according to the artist, unable to stay still long enough to be a good model. The show, at Washington Studio School, includes a series called “The Farewell,” which shows her both in motion and eerily still. These may be seen as a visual equivalent of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
That’s not the only narrative in this selection, which includes work that dates to 1969 and depicts family scenes as well as episodes from the Bible. The earlier work is more realistic, although still rendered in the artist’s characteristic soft-edged forms and muted tones. Wartofsky’s paintings, pastels and charcoal drawings can be as illustrative as 1982’s “Interior with Mischa,” or as expressionistic as some of the “Farewell” series, which feature nudes, flowers and endearments in German. (Vartowski was born in Munich, although she spent most of her life in the Washington area.) In either mode, the style recalls European artists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, including Chagall, Matisse, Munch and the less gaudy side of Klimt.
A series inspired by the story of Jacob and the Angel includes some of the show’s freest work, with areas of pure color. Yet even these paintings are representational, as is the most abstract of the “Farewells,” the only one done in charcoal. It’s starkly powerful, dominated by vertical lines and pools of grayish white. Still, there are figures in it, one simply a shrouded outline and the other mostly movement and light. The latter one seems to be a dancer.
On view through Feb. 1 at Washington Studio School, 2129 S St. NW;
Childhood has a central role in the work of all four artists in “Play by Play,” but the shared goal is not to reclaim pre-pubescent innocence. The exhibition, organized by guest curator Kayleigh Bryant at Project 4 Gallery, uses dolls, stuffed animals and small plastic figurines to conjure a sense of unease. Not only is growing up a trauma, it seems, but adult awareness casts a shadow back onto even the simplest of toddler amusements.
Janelle Whisenant’s soft-doll/stuffed-animal mashups are cuddly monstrosities, stitched together in ways that defy actual anatomy. They’re like something from “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” but even less viable than the creatures in that H.G. Wells novel. Mark Williams uses photography to do something similar, in images that combine plastic soldiers with colorful, happy-faced animals fashioned with Play-Doh molds. An olive-drab combatant might meld with an orange monkey or a yellow bunny. In addition, Williams has made large paintings of such hybrids, using flat, simple colors that make them — almost — appropriate for baby’s room.
Also a photographer of staged tableaux, Bridget Sue Lambert often works within the confines of a dollhouse from her childhood. This show, like one at Civilian Art Projects in 2012, includes images of empty miniature bedrooms, messy in ways that suggest the aftermath of adult pleasures. More attention-getting, though, are her shots of half-dressed dolls in sexual scenarios. The use of mirrors and views through windows adds to the sense of voyeurism; that the plastic figures are cheap and not especially realistic only makes the vignettes more unsettling.
In her large acrylic portraits, Amy Hughes Braden combines realistic rendering — the pictures are clearly derived from photographs — with expressionist gestures and colors. Three of the pictures are of children, perhaps on the cusp of adolescence, while the other two pictures are “Madonnas” based on the same photo. In one of the pair, the infant’s face and part of the mother’s have been obscured, but they’re clearer in the other. Viewers who have closely followed the Boston Marathon bombing case may recognize the photo, and take Braden’s point: Some blameless babies grow up to do things that are very hard to understand.
On view through Feb. 1 at Project 4 Gallery; 1353 U St. NW, Suite 302; 202-232-4340; www.project4gallery.com
Jenkins is a freelance writer.