Galleries: 'Heirlooms' at Transformer; 'Bound' at Hamiltonian

By Kriston Capps
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 7:58 PM

Detroit doesn't need another hero - at least, not Robocop. Any native Detroiter will echo Motor City Mayor Dave Bing, who took to Twitter earlier this month to pooh-pooh a public suggestion that Detroit build a statue to the city's cybernetic policeman. Who would have guessed in 1987, the year that "Robocop" was released, that the real future would wind up so much worse than the film's dark vision of a mega-corporation hellbent on gentrifying an aging city?

Robocop's fans have raised more than $62,000 toward the goal of erecting a crowd-sourced Robocop statue. But what Detroit needs most is artists, not art - artists like Lauren Rice, a former D.C.-based painter whose solo show on view at Transformer in Logan Circle is what the city deserves.

Detroiters have voiced dismay at the litany of photographers and editors streaming through the city for "ruin porn" - views of the city's abandoned skyscrapers and neighborhoods, relics of a Motown turned ghost town. Rice, who has worked in Detroit since shortly after receiving her MFA at American University in 2008, creates work that references urban decay and land reclamation without documenting Detroit in a didactic fashion.

For "Heirlooms," her show at Transformer, Rice has erected a massive, room-filling work, "Beast's Belly," a foam-and-wire monument painted to evoke the look of twisted concrete covered in graffiti. It's not a sculpture referencing anything so specific as a fallen skyscraper, though the piece's exposed back - in which the light foam supporting the work is plainly evident - gives the lie to the piece's heavy materiality.

Another work, "Heirloom," shows Rice at her best with found objects - in this case, a bunch of silk flowers that seems to grow out of another foam-and-wire structure resembling a twisted parking meter. The sculptor Charles Long looms large over Rice's work, though Rice's works feature more color than Long's haunting urban forms. A floor piece, "Spill," also revels in Rice's muted application of color.

Once a mixed-media artist whose interests mirrored those of found-object artist Jessica Stockholder, Rice has distinguished herself through her use of color, in particular through violently bright neons she subdues using the despairing grays of urban blight. Her work weighs decay through a feminine vocabulary of beads, flowers and graffiti, creating a non-moralistic document of urban degradation.

'Bound' at Hamiltonian

Decay is the superficial theme binding the works of Katherine Mann and Selin Balci, two women showing at Hamiltonian Gallery in the exhibition "Bound," though works by both are safe and antiseptic.

At first glance, Balci's work looks like it could be downright dangerous - the acrylic, wall-mounted boxes in "Bound by the Rules of Life" contain living microbial growths. These are most interesting viewed from the side, where the depths of the peaks and valleys of bacterial colonies can be viewed, rather than from the front, where they appear in their cases as colorful rings.

In prints and in two video pieces (as well as the live work), Balci reveals that she is ultimately interested in the abstractions these living colonies create. The shapes they take are ultimately out of Balci's control, making her a spectator to her processes, much like her viewers. It is not enough to merely observe that life is colorful and bound by fascinating rules of geometry. Despite the cool creep of growing colonies in her video installation "Dominion," a medium that the artist might proclaim as a new, living genre is no different, in the end, than photographs of flowers.

Mann's mixed-media paintings, too, suffer from an altogether safe strategy. She mixes graphic illustration with gestural abstraction in a fashion that will be familiar to fans of Maggie Michael, Jiha Moon and a host of other painters working today. And Mann doesn't let up - in works like "Horde 2," she weaves ribbons, intestinal abstraction and quilted checkerboard patchwork for her large, all-over images.

For "Net" and "Fabulous Atlas," Mann paints on layered, cutout papers to give the work dimension. Compositionally, though, her works in 2-D and layered 3-D all lack the same thing: negative space. She leaves herself no room to work, and the motion of her swirling patterns is stifled in all of her paintings save "Puddingstone," her best work on view.

For "Puddingstone," two areas of the canvas compete for the viewer's eye - one area in green, the other blue. Here the system seems to be rising and falling at the same time, with Mann's use of stain complementing her use of geometrical precision in places: a system snapping into place before succumbing to disorder.

Capps is a freelance writer.

Heirlooms at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday 1-7 p.m., through March 12.

Bound at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., through Saturday.

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