D.C. area art gallery shows highlight new works

July 28, 2011

The current exhibition at Irvine Contemporary isn’t dedicated to national identity. But it’s hard to miss the four American-flag variations just inside the door, and there’s another version of the Stars and Stripes elsewhere in the show. Add three local artists who riff on the cultures of their ancestral homelands — Japan, Iran and Peru — and a theme almost emerges.

Officially, “Artist Tribute 2” is the venue’s farewell to the 14th and P street premises it’s about to leave for an unannounced new home. Like its predecessor, the show features new work by artists the gallery has shown previously, and the principal element all 10 participants share is simply a high level of craftsmanship.

Those four flags are silkscreen/collages by Shepard Fairey, the L.A. artist best known for his Obama “hope” poster. His American standards are ragged glories in red, white and black, with a variety of logos — political, commercial and other — within the stars. Dripped paint and smeary colors contrast the streamlined forms of the emblems, which include anarchism’s “A,” the stylized GOP elephant and the international symbol for recycling. The juxtaposition makes “Flags 1-4” a nifty piece of graphic design. As for social commentary, not all the logos suggest a country divided into permanently opposed camps. But some of them do.

The other flag is constructed from red, white and blue Dixie cups, arrayed in a wire fence and photographed by Susana Raab. Her photos of Peru (where she was born) and Mississippi observe vernacular culture and literary shrines: William Faulkner’s desk and Eudora Welty’s library are among her subjects.

Akemi Maegawa’s two pieces are a cranial-shaped object in artificial turf — sort of a Chia brain — and “Love Daruma,” a glazed white porcelain figure that’s crying a silver, heart-shaped teardrop. In Japan, a Daruma doll is a good-luck talisman that pays tribute to Bodhidharma, the legendary monk credited with founding Zen Buddhism. Maegawa’s nearly featureless Daruma suggests the blandness of “kawaii” (Japanese for “cute”) mass culture.

Painting on Mylar, Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi combines images of modern Iran, illustrations modeled on classic Persian illuminated manuscripts and bright, flowing colors. She depicts a dragon, black helicopters and women both in and out of the head scarves required in public in contemporary Iran. The most striking of her three pieces is “Pedantic Transgression,” a blue Rorschach blot that nudges a gilded page from the country’s equally gilded past.

The show also draws, of course, on another sort of history: that of art itself. Gaia’s large-scale drawings (sometimes atop photographs) include burlesques of classical paintings. Sebastian Martorana constructs likenesses of such banal everyday objects as a bath towel and a beanie bag from classical sculpture’s noblest material, marble. And Kerry Skarbakka photographs himself swooning in front of masterpieces, experiencing the “Stendhal Syndrome,” in which art overwhelms the viewer. Skarbakka collapses ironically, of course, but amid all the political and personal commentary, these 10 artists seek to astound.

Artful acrylics

Shortly after acrylic paints became available, such artists as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis caused an art-world sensation by diluting the new pigments and letting them seep into unprimed canvas. Their pictures combined the delicacy of watercolors with the boldness of oils. But acrylics aren’t notable only for their mixability. They’re also, well, acrylic — as Suzanna Fields’s work demonstrates. Rather than water down the stuff, she serves it straight. Fields’s work in the Heurich Gallery’s “From Color to Form” is essentially sculpture, painstakingly built with drop upon drop of acrylic paint.

These seven objects share the exhibition with David Carlson’s more traditional canvases, which mix oils and acrylics to create literal depth and an array of textures. His style is engaging, but Fields’s is extraordinary. Using a sea-and-sun palette, the local artist constructs shrubby round paintings that suggest flowers or cactuses — or perhaps artfully arranged seaweed dishes from a fancy Japanese kaiseki restaurant. Aside from the yellow-gold “Acute Sensation,” the work seems to be all in shades of blue and green. Yet careful inspection reveals, for example, red tips on “Knockoff’s” emerald fronds. The early abstract-expressionist paintings made with acrylics were vast and immersive, meant to be seen from a distance; Fields’s paint-pieces invite the eye closer and closer, to swim between tiny plastic tendrils.

Realism and abstraction

“On the Edge,” at Silver Spring’s Betty Mae Kramer Gallery, is divided equally between realism and abstraction. That is, there are two artists in each category. But most of the pictures are by one of the abstractionists, Cuban-born Rockville artist Jorge Luis Bernal. He works in encaustic monotype, a technique in which a wax-crayon drawing is made on a hot metal plate and then transferred to paper.

These small prints, most of them square and set off by thick black frames, intriguingly mix bright and weathered colors. Bernal lists Adolph Gottlieb — an obvious influence on his two homages to “G” — and Wassily Kandinsky among his inspirations, but viewers may also think of Kandinsky’s colleague, Paul Klee. Trained as an architect, Bernal occasionally includes shapes that suggest human-made forms, notably in a print titled “Architecture 101.” But from “Bird of Paradise” to the sun-struck “Espina,” Bernal pits lines against colors in ways that evoke the natural world.

Bernal says his style draws on “personal archetypes,” while the show’s other abstractionist, Florence Gang, calls her approach “intuitive.” The local artist’s four pictures (including a diptych) do feel spontaneous, but they’re not simple. Gang’s acrylics are alternately thin and thick, with lines sometimes scraped into the denser areas. The visual motif seems to be looking beneath the surface: The scrapings suggest bones, and a watery yellow-and-green area in “Transition” evokes medical imaging. That may be over-analyzing these paintings, which are purely nonrepresentational. But it just might be pertinent that Gang has also done a series of “Torsos,” brightly decorated headless mannequins whose curves indisputably represent the body.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Artist Tribute 2

through Aug. 27 at Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St. NW. 202-332-8767. www.irvinecontemporary.com.

From Color to Form

through Sept. 7 at the Heurich Gallery, 505 Ninth St. NW. 202-223-1626.

On the Edge

through Oct. 3 at the Betty Mae Kramer Gallery. Silver Spring Civic Building, 1 Veterans Pl., Silver Spring. www.creative­moco­.­com/
kramer-gallery
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