Devotees of Hollywood movies complain about the mysteries of art films, yet it’s remarkably easy to twist straightforward storytelling into an arty enigma. That’s what Jonathan Monaghan does to an utterly mainstream and generally simple-minded narrative form: the video game. His “Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings,” an eight-minute video screening continuously at the Curator’s Office gallery, cryptically repurposes characters and elements from “Street Fighter,” “G.I. Joe” and “Super Mario Bros.”
Monaghan, a recent University of Maryland MFA who had a related video in Conner’s “Academy 2011” show in the fall, grew up playing some of these games. And his skills with 3D Studio Max software could earn him a career at Pixar or some maker of bland, computer-generated entertainment. But Monaghan’s video shorts owe less to “Toy Story” than to film artist Matthew Barney, who turns his obsessions into elaborately staged scenarios. Both men’s work is epic yet private, a dreamlike procession of borrowed images that critique shopworn notions of luxury, power and manhood.
Although his visual style is pure Nintendo, Monaghan interjects things from outside the vid-game universe. The locations include Princess Peach’s castle, but also New York’s old-money Metropolitan Club and an opera house that doubles as a bull ring. A cheesy, “SportsCenter”-style fanfare alternates with passages from Bizet’s “Carmen,” and a busty superheroine shares the non-story with the image of a delicate Renaissance beauty. Solemn images of royalty contrast with goofy, Disney-style birds and fishes, and the parallel worlds of boys’ and girls’ video games disconcertingly collide. In one scene, the hyper-muscled warriors find themselves in a hair salon and have no choice but to get a shampoo. The power of the video-game designer is supreme, even when — as in the case of “Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings” — the designer has clearly lost the thread of “Street Fighter’s” macho logic.
Surveying about four decades of photographs, “Maremagnum” is a tribute to Barcelona-born Jordi Socias, but also to photography. Socias’s pictures show a film-noir taste for night and shadow, wet streets and glistening metal. Enlarged to poster size, and sometimes mounted on lightboxes, the prints on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute are visceral and rough-textured. They glory in the graininess that was once evidence of photos made in low light or on the move.
A self-taught shooter, Socias began as a co-founder of Agencia Popular, which reported news that the Franco regime censored. “Maremagnum” means maelstrom, and some of the photographer’s earlier images depict struggle and protest. One gallery in this show — one that uses lightboxes — is all news photos, caught on the street or from above, looking down at the tumult. Yet Socias also took time for more artfully composed work, including female nudes, travel scenes (Britain, Cuba, Texas) and wry jokes, both visual and verbal. There’s a self-portrait with a bear, a low-angle shot of a traffic-clogged street that’s titled “Autofocus” and a picture that exploits perspective to make it appear that London is being menaced by a massive pigeon.