For millennia, pigments were derived directly from plants, metals and gems. More recently, synthetic dyes were developed, and human-made contaminants began discoloring the natural world. These are among the motifs of “Rewilding,” Julie Wolfe’s show at Hemphill Fine Arts. Amid the paintings and mixed-media works are two sets of jars that contain brightly hued water. The larger of them, “Bioscope,” features more than a hundred bottles whose contents are fuchsia and blue, yellow and green. The colors result from plant and animal extractions, but also from industrial pollutants.
Among the listed “Bioscope” tints are indigo, squid ink, henna, beet juice, broccoli and blueberries (the last three from D.C. farmers markets). The smaller piece, “Waterway,” includes samples from the Anacostia, Potomac and Rock Creek, as well as melted snow collected in New York’s SoHo.
The colored-water assemblages are just two of more than 20 works, but they’re integral to Wolfe’s vision. The artist is trying to find a vantage point within nature, rather than making art with the detachment from (and implied superiority to) the environment that’s characteristic of traditional Western painting and sculpture. Her “Yes (self-referential)” is a mirrored piece that turns the spectator’s gaze back on itself.
Wolfe’s approach doesn’t always yield unprecedented results. Such paintings as “Kingdom Come I” and “Rewilding 4” are lovely and complex, with an impressive sense of depth that suggests clouded skies or muddied waters. But aside from their preference for natural, mutating hues over bright, simple ones, these pictures are not far removed from the color-field style that began in the 1960s. Adding simple outline drawings or crisp, multicolored targets atop the hazy grounds doesn’t significantly change the effect.
According to the gallery’s news release, Wolfe seeks to discard “an anthropocentric viewpoint.” That may not really be achievable, but people can certainly become more conscious of their interrelationship with nature. As “Rewilding” demonstrates, that awareness can both engross and alarm.
On view through May 18 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-234-5601,www.hemphillfinearts.com.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.