Thematic group exhibitions can be amorphous, and that goes double for group shows of conceptual art. So, viewers of “Creature Comforts” at Lorton’s Workhouse Art Center may still be wondering what the title phrase is supposed to mean when they leave the building. But there is much interesting work on display, and some of it makes provocative reference to how humans use other creatures for their comfort.
Curated by the microWave project’s Allison Nance and Mary Cook, the show includes no painting, drawing or photography, except as part of larger constructions or installations. The emphasis is on making and building, with many pieces that decontextualize furnishings and other everyday objects. Maria Duke’s “Carry a Big Stick” encompasses four chairs, one disassembled, made of spindly, whittled wood. David Bogus’s “Optimist Luggage” comprises five retro suitcases that might seem to be mass-produced vinyl but, on closer inspection, turn out to be ceramic with hand-painted dots and stripes. Abby Bennett’s “In Effort,” a series of six wall-mounted pillows decorated with large buttons, suggests a partial set of dominoes but actually spells out “ornate” in Braille.
Some pieces have moving parts — or look as if they should. Christian Benefiel’s “Inaction in Action” is a nest of large, black, nylon tubes that inflate periodically, when a mechanical blower is activated by a randomly timed controller. Of Ron Longsdorf’s two assemblages of wood, drywall and foam insulation, one features photos of a house under construction, while the other includes a small video projector that provides an image of a window screen that’s occasionally adjusted. Among the wittiest entries are Austin Wolf’s small gizmos that look like tiny models of machine-shop devices but are designed for such low-tech domestic tasks as sharpening pencils and squeezing out toothpaste.
Not all the work is so whimsical. Sandra Wilcoxon’s “Mink Stole” is a warmth-less wrap made of more than 100 bejeweled mink skulls, a memento mori for the uncountable animals slaughtered for clothing and decoration. Novie Trump’s “Hidden Cost” scatters blackened ceramic birds on the floor, as if killed by an oil spill, next to a long but only partial list of petroleum-based products “that we use daily.” James Walker’s “What Matters Most” is a symbolic likeness of his studio, which includes feathers, birds’ nests, animal skulls and human teeth. While Walker’s installation suggests that the most personal of things are acquired rather than made, Wilcoxon’s and Trump’s works prompt second thoughts about the cost of what humans take from nature.
Local painter Jo Weiss is hardly the first artist to liken dancers to birds. But where “Swan Lake” combines avian and human, Weiss’s “Gestures” divides the two — and seems more compelled by wings than limbs. Her exhibition at Washington Studio School includes a few pictures of bending womanly forms and more than a dozen of cranes at sanctuaries in India and Wisconsin. Their gestures are as fluid and elegant as the paintings that capture them.
Most of these are oils, but Weiss also uses acrylic, ink, crayon and more, working on linen, canvas and, occasionally, paper. The variety of media is matched by the range of styles — from impressionist to expressionist, and sometimes in the same picture. The striking “Demoiselle Dawn,” for example, conjures flight with sideways strokes, while vertical paint drips add to the overall feeling of movement. “Flight,” in pencil and gouache on paper, is a study in black and luminous grays that suggests Asian scroll paintings. Others are more realistic, but all are linked by their themes and visual poise.
Artistically, the District has long been associated with the Washington Color School’s stain paintings: thin washes of diluted acrylic paint that seep into unprimed canvas. Brooklyn artist Jackie Battenfield also works with watery acrylic pigments, but she has altered the effect by abandoning canvas for plastic. “Field Notes,” her suite of tree paintings at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, was executed on mylar or Dura-Lar. The effect is to preserve the sense of liquidity. Although the color has dried, the way it flowed and pooled is still visible.
Battenfield’s work is representational, yet minimalist and far from literal. Some of the 16 paintings, which all show branches and foliage, are executed in a single hue. About half of them use contrasting shades for the wood and the flowers, and one painting adds glimmers of a third color.
The schemes are not naturalistic: Branches can be purple, and leaves blue. Sometimes, the shapes are crisp enough to suggest soft-focus photography, but others appear closer to watercolor. The artist also varies the layout, working in vertical, horizontal and multipanel formats. Whatever the shape, though, the defining aspect is the paint itself. It has dried solid, yet it retains a sense of motion that’s entirely apt for renderings of fluttering leaves.
The canvases in “Synaesthetic Impressions” are also nature paintings and have a lively aspect. But K Silve, who divides her time between Oregon and Provence, doesn’t do thin. She applies acrylics abundantly, and in multiple layers, to give a feeling of depth. She’s also interested in spontaneity, as the title of her Susan Calloway Fine Arts show indicates. Her free hand and occasional spattering recall such abstract expressionists as Jackson Pollock. But her use of photography to achieve a nonphotographic result — she digitally edits photos of her in-progress work to help finalize the compositions — parallels the technique of German painter Gerhard Richter.
Silve often uses a small square format and sometimes works in sequences to capture multiple impressions of the same locale — or rather, the sensation inspired by the locale. Most of these paintings are in the “Sacred Place” series inspired by the experience of nature around Portland and are heavy on green and yellow, sometimes set off by bits of deep blue. A few were sparked by visits to Mexican markets and are faster, brighter and looser. Both series are vivid, but it’s the more organic-seeming Oregon pictures that inspire prolonged looks.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through May 27 at Workhouse Arts Center, 9601 Ox Rd., Lorton; 703-495-0001; workhousearts.org.
on view through May 26 at Washington Studio School, 2129 S St. NW; 202-234-3030; www.washingtonstudioschool.org .
on view through June 2 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-338-5180; www.addisonripleyfineart.com .
on view through May 26 at Susan Calloway Fine Arts, 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-965-4601; www.callowayart.com .