Furniture is devolving and vehicles are becoming reptilian in two shows at VisArts at Rockville, in which practical skills turn intriguingly impractical. Kenneth Martin’s “Sculpture and Casework,” upstairs in the complex’s Kaplan Gallery, includes examples of the cabinetmaker’s regular work but is devoted mostly to pieces that defy usefulness. John R.G. Roth’s “Polymorphic Conveyance,” downstairs at the Gibbs Street Gallery, draws on the sculptor’s background as a research lab’s prototype maker but has a mad scientist’s aesthetic.
Martin’s exhibition includes four pieces of actual furniture, which demonstrate his finesse. After that, things get messy. The Maryland sculptor constructs ungainly stacks of found objects, or inserts blocks of finished lumber into larger slabs of raw wood; slats protrude from boards, and thin poles trail like tentacles. Martin sometimes shapes his material into clean, simple shapes: “Night Country Road” is a half-circle of ebonized oak, with a post at one end. Similarly elegant is “Big Bender,” the show’s largest piece, and the only one made entirely of metal. Two towering steel arcs splay from a column wrapped in metal fencing. Characteristically, the piece’s steel limbs are not symmetrical. It seems that Martin gets his fill of equilibrium when crafting chests, tables and writing stands.
The two most common elements in Roth’s show are wheels and sheet-metal skins that give the impression of scales. His “conveyances” have the sheen of fish, or perhaps some forgotten breed of aquatic dinosaur. (One glistening, headless critter is titled “Cretaceous Mode.”) Roth, who teaches sculpture in Norfolk, combines the organic and the mechanical: “Surreptitious Return” is sort of a Loch Ness Foot, guided by small propellers; “Divine Imperial Commuter” is part tank, part lizard, part 5:05 to Manassas; and “Crux Navis” is a shiny-scaled ship with a cross for a sail, floating on a plexiglass sea.
Some of these concoctions are free-standing, but others are placed inside cases, as though they’re exhibits in an unnatural history museum. Roth likes fire and smoke, which he conveys with, respectively, red lights or billows of cotton wool, sometimes dyed black. There’s a bit of the steampunk sensibility to this work, which encompasses industrial smokestacks and antique diving gear as well as fish and dinosaurs. The show’s closest thing to a self-portrait might be “Personal Watercraft,” in which a woman pilots a large tanker ship as if it’s a two-seater speedboat. She’s probably headed to those uncharted seas where silvery sea monsters mate with VRE trains.
on view through Feb. 16 at Kaplan and Gibbs Street galleries, VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-315-8200, www.visartscenter.org.
Some artists build cabinets; others fill them. Forest Z. Allread’s “Cabinets of Curiosity,” at Transformer, invokes the Renaissance-era tradition of the wunderkammer: a refined person’s collection of marvelous items, both artistic and scientific. Life isn’t quite so genteel these days, so Allread doesn’t use the classiest of containers. Many of his cabinets are cigar boxes or plastic milk crates.
These site-specific installations rely heavily on driftwood and various filaments. Often the found object is the main attraction: “Pickled Wood Plank” displays a board inside a jar, and the principal object in “Tropical Storm” is a yellow-painted teeter-totter spring. The D.C. artist’s quieter work can suggest surrealism; “Gemini Pull” is a mostly brown cigar-box construction that vaguely resembles a Giorgio de Chirico canvas. But Allread’s enthusiasm for everyday junk and brightly colored yarns and threads gives his assemblages a childlike quality. (The collagist trained at the Corcoran as a children’s art teacher.)
Such pieces as “Nine Patch Universe,” which suspends various objects in webs of yarn inside nine multicolored milk crates, playfully propose to be models of the cosmos. Allread is half serious about this; on Saturday at 3 p.m., he’ll discuss the implications of his string and yarn patterns with physicist John Royer, an expert on complex fluids from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But if “Cabinets of Curiosity” represents a universe, it’s Allread’s own. This firmament is animated not by general principles, but by one artist’s whimsy.
on view through Feb. 23 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW; 202-483-1102; www.transformerdc.org.
The planned suburb-town of Reston seems an unlikely place for art about the declining American manufacturing sector. Yet that’s what is currently on display at Greater Reston Arts Center. Beverly Ryan’s “Post-Industrial,” a series of mixed-media paintings on aluminum panels, jumbles abstract gestures and photo-transfers of dilapidated industrial sites. George L. Smyth’s “The Braddock Project” uses high-contrast Bromoil prints to document the surly remains of a near-vanished Pennsylvania city.
Ryan’s work, which at times recalls Larry Rivers’s or Andy Warhol’s, also includes a separate but related sequence. “Suits and Skirts” reacts angrily to the housing bubble and subsequent Wall Street bailout. It portrays monkeys in suits and figures covered with coins or numbers; such canvases as “He’s Golden” apply gilding, in the style of Russian icons, with bitter irony. The emotion is palpable, although the primitivism of the Alexandria-based painter’s style can feel more distracting than germane.
Wolves feature in both sets of pictures, apparently meant to represent a rapaciousness that in reality is more human than lupine. Generally, the “Post-Industrial” ones are more compelling. Ryan deftly arranges the photographic elements, slicing or stacking images of buildings to forge symbolic structures. The metallic backgrounds, complemented by black, gray, white and occasional scraps of yellow, evoke the look of both factory architecture and products. Although the pieces depict industry in decline, they still have a little chrome-plated glamour.
Smyth’s Braddock pictures are part of a decade-long exercise in representing that city’s desolation. They’re shown with examples of another series, “The Extras,” glimpses of people who passed quickly through the photographer’s field of vision. Both groupings use the Bromoil process, which means they’re made from photographic prints in which the silver was replaced by ink. The resulting image is ghostly, suggesting the early days of photography while evoking a sense of loss. It’s an ideal format to capture the forlorn exteriors of abandoned steel plants and boarded-up houses, and the false promise of Braddock’s employment training center.
on view through Feb. 23 at Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Reston; 703-471-9242; www.restonarts.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.