Editors' pick

Nancy Wolf: Landscapes of Unease

Painting/Drawing
'

Editorial Review


By Mark Jenkins
Sunday, December 8, 2013

Nancy Wolf appreciates the clean lines and simple forms of Bauhaus--style architecture. But she’s an artist, not an architect, so she has to ask: Where do people and tradition feature in the International Style’s attempt to cleanse cities of their historic character?

It’s a question she has been asking for 40 years, as “Nancy Wolf: Landscapes of Unease” demonstrates. The Marsha Mateyka Gallery retrospective begins with 1972’s “The Underpass,” in which gaps in an immaculate grid reveal unruly pedestrians below. It ends with 2013’s “High Line/Low Line,” in which centuries of architectural features promenade on Manhattan’s railway--turned--park, past blank high--rise facades.

During the period these detailed drawings were made, Wolf lived mostly in New York, but also in Washington’s “new Southwest” and Nigeria, and she traveled extensively in Asia. All those places are reflected in her work, as are baroque Italy and Le Corbusier’s severe plans for France. “Perfect Order” shows a city divided into zones so rigidly that it’s even more absurd than the architect’s scheme to replace Paris with a series of identical tower blocks.

Often, Wolf seems bemused or playful, as when she contrasts traditional Nigerian geometric motifs with modernist and industrial structures. But sometimes she’s regretful or even angry: “The Past Has No Future” shows a leaning New York skyscraper that’s supported by the facades of the many 19th--century beauties demolished to make room for it.

Among the most trenchant drawings are those that depict a rapidly changing China. Traditional buildings and layouts, as well as the landscapes of venerable Chinese painting, are displaced by culturally unrooted edifices such as Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing.

“Reconstruction/Deconstruction” places the CCTV oddity amid a vast archaeological dig, like the one that yielded the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Wolf works mostly in pencil, rendering both modernist lines and classical curves with extraordinary precision. But occasionally she incorporates color, using gouache, acrylic and colored pencil. The astonishingly complex “Pilgrimage” contrasts old and new, specific and general: Pilgrims wander elevated causeways above skyscrapers outlined in bright hues against black, on a quest toward architectural variety rather than monomaniacal modernism.

D.C. artist Ellington Robinson also depicts the world humans have made, but not by erecting buildings. The largely abstract paintings and combines in “Supreme Magnetic,” at Project 4 Gallery, sometimes resemble maps or open terrain as seen from far above. Many of the motifs of Robinson’s previous show recur, including lengths of audiotape that evoke lost sounds and thoughts and railroad--track patterns that suggest humans’ marks on the landscape.

The artist uses record players and cassette tapes to invoke the half--forgotten past, whether he’s jutting disembodied tone arms from “Memory + Rememory” (a piece that also features a deflated punching bag) or producing a rumbling noise from a speaker attached by audiotape to the main part of “North Equatorial Coast.” The show’s centerpiece is “Oath of the Imperialists,” which features not only some of Robinson’s most inspired repurposing, but also most pointed commentary. Constructed from a tabletop with a missing center leaf, the piece is impaled by the sort of knives used to carve up other people’s lands.

Robinson is among the artists in the Washington edition of “Decenter NY/DC,” which marks the centenary of the Armory Show, generally considered the United States’ first large modern--art exhibition. Adapted from one presented in Manhattan in April, the show at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery includes much work that couldn’t have existed in 1913, including video skits and computer--generated prints. There’s also stuff that just wouldn’t have made any sense then, such as Douglas Coupland’s cross between a De Stijl--like abstraction and a QR code.

That piece is typical of the overall aesthetic, which tends toward the clean and hard--edged. Cory Arcangel draws a jagged line in space with yellow--coated steel; Lisa Ruyter remakes a classic documentary photo as an oddly hued color--by--numbers painting; and David Kennedy builds a spire of crushed aluminum neatly covered in spray paint and inkjet prints of shiny discs.

Even the thick, white pigment of Robinson’s “Spin” is tidy, raked like gravel in a Zen garden. If the Armory Show is a harbinger of chaos, “Decenter” reflects a meticulously digitized age of crisp lines and saturated colors.

Sometimes describing a painting can make it sound stranger than it really is. Not in the case of Cassie Taggart. A domestic surrealist, she sets most of her scenes in everyday residential rooms. But there’s often a view out a window or door to the wilder universe outside, as well as lots of incongruous flora and fauna inside. Mushrooms grow from a green rug, a blindfolded rabbit sits next to a pair of bunny slippers and a woman’s knitting becomes the trunk of a small white elephant who’s curled up in the nearby fireplace. No wonder Zenith Salon has dubbed this show “The Strange World of Cassie Taggart.”

The selection includes two elaborate structures on stilts, dollhouse--like constructions that pack even more detail than Taggart’s one--dimensional tableaux. But the emphasis is on the latter, which are executed in a flat, almost--naive style. The recurring motifs include metamorphosis and the shifting relationship of image and reality. There are pictures within pictures, and decorative touches sometimes come to life: In “Origins,” a seemingly real tail protrudes from a framed canvas of a cat. Within Taggart’s cozily cluttered interiors, anything can appear to happen.