Nancy Wolf gets "content" into her drawings the old-fashioned way: she thinks.
She also has something to say. Skeptical of "progress," especially in the urban environment, Wolf is best known for symbolically skewering, with sharpened graphite, the dwarfing scale of contemporary urban architecture, and the displacement of old buildings by new. The highlight of her last show with Marsha Mateyka was a characteristically meticulous drawing titled "Expulsion," in which New York's Citicorp tower looms over tiny people whose spiritual welfare has clearly been given a back seat to economic expediency.
But in the late '70s Wolf began to travel, to Eastern Europe and to Africa, and to see things far worse than the disintegrating quality of life and architecture in midtown Manhattan. Repression and the loss of personal freedom are the true subjects of "Journey to a New Place," a drawing made after a visit to Prague and Warsaw. Here, thousands stand in interminable lines in a surreal urban landscape, while others, in a subterranean museum, are carefully watched as they gaze at Michelangelo's "Bound Slave" and a caged "Madonna and Child." (Wolf often inserts great works of art into her drawings for their symbolic allusions, and ferreting them out is a special pleasure.)
In 1982 Wolf went to live for two years in the remote Nigerian town of Yola, and there observed a nation moving all too fast into modern times and being torn apart by it. The Nigerian drawings make up her current show at Marsha Mateyka, and they are filled with the jarring juxtapositions that have resulted from this sudden overlay of Western culture and technology. Traditionally costumed dancers, representing gods and spirits, are set against a skyline sprouting skyscrapers. A huge, imported and abandoned boiler is set in a field -- a monument to misunderstood technology -- surrounded by villagers and grass huts.
But worse things than the technological onslaught are here observed. There is also hunger, atrocity and public execution, and Wolf's desire to deal with all this has resulted in work that often teeters closer to illustration than to art. Her chief device -- using the designs from traditional gourd (or calabash) carvings as patterned backdrops for these undisguised scenes from contemporary life -- does underscore the juxtaposition of the traditional and the new that constitutes her main point, but it doesn't always work. In "The Dead Without Houses," for example -- the artist's interpretation of the Maitatsine riots in which members of this religious sect were caught by vigilantes, doused with gasoline and set afire -- the colored, patterned background seems worse than irrelevant.
But there are some fine exceptions, such as "The Boiler" and "The Flimsy Glories of Paved Streets," in which the traditional Nigerian design hovering in the background manages to take on a triumphant spiritual life of its own, overpowering the skyscrapers below. The absence of color here helps. Wolf does not appear to be a colorist, and in general her work is better without it -- with one exception, the single bit of levity in this show, entitled "Calabash Disco."
This intriguing work tells us a good deal not only about contemporary Nigeria, but about a sensibility confronted by a bit more than it could swallow. "Transition Remembered: A Vision of Nigeria" will continue at 2012 R St. NW through May 9. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays. Richard Misrach
For years, California photographer Richard Misrach blasted the nocturnal landscapes of Arizona and Baja California with electronic strobes, producing eerie, haunted images of underbrush, desert cactus and palms. His new color photographs at Marie Martin Gallery suggest not only revised sleeping habits, but an interest in subtlety -- virgin territory for him -- and a pending search for a new mode.
The desert landscape is the same, though now observed by day, and often with an eye to capturing signs of man's intrusion upon it. And while some of these images are too subtle to be certain what we're meant to see, "Palms to Pines Highway" is a fine example in which a road, barely seen, seems to slither lizard-like across the stony, barren expanse. His view of an abandoned swimming pool near the Salton Sea is also memorable.
But it is the series called "Desert Fire" that represents the strongest new work. Ablaze with Misrach calls "found fires," these are photographs of unbeautiful places, all similarly composed with a central horizon line, in which skies seem to be painted with the smudged colors of fire and smoke -- sometimes dank yellow, sometimes choking gray. It was a challenging project, executed with a varying, but generally high, degree of success. The show will continue at 3243 P St. NW through May 9. Hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Refuse's at Studio
Attention area artists: Feeling rejected? For all those who entered the Corcoran's upcoming "Washington Show" but weren't accepted, Studio Gallery is organizing a Salon des Refuse's to be shown there in June. Jurying by Washington painter Val Lewton will be tomorrow at Studio, 420 7th St. NW, where entries can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. There is no entry fee, but there will be a $30 hanging fee for those who are accepted.