THE VITALITY of the Washington Project for the Arts is so endless and forthcoming that you'd never guess the place is run by a committee and monitored by sundry grantspersons. The current shows by two local artists are cases in point: Like 'em or not, they're powerful and original.
Tom Nakashima paints and draws with such energy that even those of his images that are not engaging tend to be compelling. Nakashima is a proudly self-proclaimed melting-pot American (third-generation Japanese-American and second-generation Canadian-American of Irish-German extraction). He blends motifs from all his roots and branches, plus the Third World, in canvases and constructions that are more original as media than as messages.
Nakashima's imagery and iconography is too complex to summarize briefly -- it is very well-explicated in the exhibit brochure -- but you don't need to know exactly what he's saying to understand the urgency of his intentions. The two score works on view (it seems like more) were selected from only the last six years; if he had produced nothing else it still would amount to a prodigious output, because Nakashima's paintings are intricately conceived and meticulously elaborated.
Margot Starr Kernan went on from considerable success in still photography to video, and it shows. Even when she's rolling tape she often uses photographs, parts of photographs, montages of photographs, and moving pictures that don't move.
Kernan has shown a number of her "artvideos" in an impressive roster of world venues ranging from Osnabrueck, West Germany to Melbourne, Australia. Her offering here is a three-part "video novel" with a total running time of about half an hour, showing simultaneously on three separate monitors. We're invited to drop in at any point in any one of them; the linear-minded may find themselves somewhat disoriented.
"Cold Stories" is about growing up, or failing to do so, in the duck-and-cover atomic era. "Breaking and Entering" is about a married woman, left fearful and homebound by the stress of growing up in the duck-and-cover era, who takes a visiting real-estate agent to bed because he knows the poetry of Wallace Stevens. "Defenses" is a warm reminiscence between adult sisters about the wonderful bedtime stories their father used to tell; it gradually becomes a tale of incest.
To watch the first segment visitors must stand, and for the second we're offered chairs. To view the sisters segment we're invited to sit on a child-size mattress, complete with teddy bear. It's a dirty trick, and it works.