Renee Stout's sculpture is precious and powerful. Her works, on view at B.R. Kornblatt, are toned and textured an earthy brown, punctuated with gemlike bits of colors and suffused with an air of dustiness and age. Minutely detailed and finely crafted, each of her small fetish sculptures and life-size tableaux is assembled from a collection of found objects ranging from old lace to bullets, from bones to jars of mysterious powders. She derives these charms from both the traditions of her African ancestors and from Native American medicine practices. A native of Pittsburgh who came to Washington in 1985, Stout is gaining well-deserved recognition with her inclusion in the Dallas Museum of Art's traveling exhibition "Black Art-Ancestral Legacy," which opens in March at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
One of four tableaux detailing the lives of the fictional Dorothy and her beloved, world-traveling Colonel Frank, "She Kept Her Conjuring Table Very Neat" is a work about good magic. The tools of Dorothy's magic are laid out for use on two small tables, ready to conjure the roving colonel back home to her. A book written in a cryptic script and some personal notes, like journal entries, scrawled on the rug beneath suggest that this is not simply lovesick play but the remembering of traditions that were based on disciplined study, practice and self-searching.
Stout is not actually conjuring magic here in the sense of witchy hocus-pocus, but she is awakening our sensibilities to the age-old need to find ways to understand and influence life. By using everyday objects, which, after all, were the earliest materials used in magic, ritual and art, she forces examination of their qualities and associations. The lightness of a feather calls to mind the flight of birds, the soaring of the spirit. The presence of an individual still lingers in his reading glasses or his favorite chair. Stout shows us this "magic" as a useful survival method for making sense of life. The subtleties she explores reveal much when read for their intuitive connections, symbolism and relationships to the patterns and processes underlying life.
Mindy Weisel at Rockville Arts Place
Mindy Weisel is known for her dark, brooding abstract canvases. This German-born Washington artist has long been haunted by the shadows of the Holocaust, but in this show of mixed-media works on paper and canvas at the Rockville Arts Place, light, color and movement are the principal players.
"Inevitable," a mysterious painting with layer upon layer of blue, purple and black marks, recalls her previous work, both in its rich surface and the horizontal and vertical gestures that form tentative indications of architectural space. But the brooding quality of earlier works has shifted to a feeling of reassurance. Indeed, the dark strokes of color lean almost protectingly over a luminous forest-green "window" that appears as if in the distance, like the light at the end of a tunnel.
That these are works charged with deep emotions is evident in the tension between the energetic scribbles animating their surfaces and the disciplined restraint of Weisel's gestural marks. But it is her painterly exploration of color that most of all conveys the pain, passion and exhilaration behind these works in such passages as the invigorating gleam of a stroke of red over ice blue and the restful peace of indigo paired with shades of dark green.
Weisel's move away from her dark palette falls short in some of these works. "White Sheets and Prayer Shawls," the only oil painting on canvas in the show, has a coating of white paint brushed over an active underpainting like icing, but its pale surface lacks the detail and dramatic light of the more colorful works. Its opacity and lack of resolution perhaps indicate that Weisel is not yet quite clear about her direction. Nonetheless, it is an exciting thing to view an artist's work in transition, and Weisel's lightening palette holds much promise.
Ivy Parsons at Arnold & Porter
Light is a crucial part of Baltimore artist Ivy Parsons's sculpture. Her work at the sculpture gallery of the law firm of Arnold & Porter is part of the continuing "Emerging Forms" series curated by the International Sculpture Center. Parsons is showing five sculptures made primarily from mica and slate. The shimmering reflections of the mica on the floor and walls give the work a liveliness very much in contrast to its businesslike surroundings.
They also form a striking contrast to the heaviness of her materials and forms. Stretching across the floor, "Stone Braid" is a 12-foot braid sheathed in mica. At one end it drapes heavily over a large copper pod, like a snake assaulting an egg. Its thickness and simple shape have a primordial quality. The weight and density they imply find an odd coexistence with the glistening mica, which seems about to dematerialize the braid into wisps of light. There is a lingering impression that the form itself is made from compacted light.
Parsons often uses braids and spirals in her work for their archetypal references to unity and the forces of growth and decay. Braids are also a personal reference to her grandmother's hair, which she kept uncut and braided until it was sheared at the hospital just before her death.
There is a gentleness and strength in these symbolic forms that works well with Parsons's mineral materials. The permanence of these materials forms another contrast against the apparent fragility created by her methods of stacking stones or covering armatures with delicate, scaly skins of mica or slate fragments. Parsons thrives on the use of contrasts, somehow managing to reconcile their polarities while employing them to invigorate the work both visually and conceptually.
Renee Stout, at B.R. Kornblatt Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Feb. 6.
Mindy Weisel, at Rockville Arts Place, 100 E. Middle Lane, Rockville, through Feb. 2.
Ivy Parsons, at Arnold & Porter, 1155 21st St. NW, ninth floor, through Feb. 28.