B.G. Muhn; various artists
Things are splintering in “Beyond the Last Desert,” the magnum opus of “Accidental Reality,” B.G. Muhn’s show at Visarts at Rockville’s Gibbs Street Gallery. The 19-foot-wide painting includes such venerable symbols of death and decay as a skeleton and, of course, a desert. But there’s also something contemporary about the portrayal of dissolution: The picture itself is breaking down into pixels, the “picture elements” that constitute all digital imagery.
Muhn, who teaches art at Georgetown University, is not the first painter to assert visually that he’s making pictures of mechanical reproductions; the photorealists started doing that in the 1960s. And painting pixels is not the artist’s only method for fragmenting images. The show also includes “Point Reality,” which cloaks emblematic Buddhist figures behind a curtain of white daubs so that they’re almost invisible up close but perceptible from a distance.
Still, the simulation of pixels is the knottiest aspect of this show. There are multiple, McLuhanesque ironies to the technique: Muhn is painstakingly simulating by hand the dots that digital gadgets produce automatically, and these are not “real” pixels, because they’re rendered by a paintbrush, not an electronic device. But the medium is the message, even if it’s not the medium. In an age of innovative but untrustworthy systems of transmitting pictures, the fragility of life is mirrored by the capriciousness of technology.
There’s also much computer-related art in “Crossing the Distance,” upstairs at Visarts’s Kaplan gallery, and that’s not just because the group show’s participants are college-age art students. It also reflects the easiest way to communicate between the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, and the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, in Kabul.
If the Internet were a logical way to exchange ideas between the two schools, using it wasn’t always easy. Luis Arboleda’s dinner-table installation, with one chair marked by “caution” tape, reflects the frustration of limited contact with his Afghan collaborator. Other Marylanders were inspired by the media images — DeAndre Britton did a large painting of the Time magazine cover photo of a young woman whose face was mutilated by the Taliban — or by imagining life in that very different land: Bailey Sheehan’s “Real Men Wear Pink” shows a couple, modeled on the artist and his boyfriend, with nooses above their heads.
The Afghan artists participated in collaborations that yielded video and audio works that contemplate cultural and religious differences. The art made by the Afghans alone tends to be more traditional. Setareh Salehi Arashloo’s “Knitted Camp” series consists of evocative drawings in black ink with gray and white washes; Jalil Barati’s abstract drawing-collages each incorporate a photo of a woman in customary Afghan dress. These aren’t the show’s most provocative entries, but they are among the most elegant.
Accidental Reality; Crossing the Distance
on view through March 31 at Gibbs Street and Kaplan galleries, Visarts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-315-8200, www.visartsrockville.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.