Boiling down Michele Blondel's art to a few simple sentences is an impossible task. Whether she is working with colored glass or textiles, the French sculptor weaves so many metaphors, allegories and allusions into her work that it would take a doctoral dissertation to track them all down.
A scholarly investigation could explore the religion, history, mystery, mythology, biology, sexuality and duality that infuses every piece in "Recent Sculpture: Self-Portrait as Mermaid," Blondel's captivating show at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. But no study could ever capture her work's remarkably vivid and very French mix of strength, sensuousness and vulnerability. Her art is utterly unique.
For much of her career, the 51-year-old artist has explored the sacred and the profane, and those notions are the focus of her latest work. At first glance, Blondel's exhibition can seem like an unholy mess of disparate parts just lying around the gallery. But when one considers the titles of the various pieces, they begin to make sense.
"Legend of the Mermaid and the Unicorn," which consists of 26 glass sculptures arranged on the floor by the gallery's front window, is an excellent example. To evoke the mermaid, Blondel begins by creating an amphora shape made from rich red glass tinged with gold. That simple, transparent shape with its lustrous surface calls to mind single-celled organisms, the human womb, ancient Greece, wine and blood.
Blondel then begins to alter that shape by flattening the bottom to resemble fins. In another piece, the fin is split in the middle and starts to look like feet and legs. That effect is heightened by the presence of an ornately embroidered slipper placed near the sculptures.
Through this evolution of mermaid-related shapes, all made from the same red glass, the viewer is pulled into mythology. In folk legends and even contemporary movies such as "Splash," the mermaid is able to take human form to be with her true love. But the transformation into a legged creature is a painful sacrifice. Yet another sculpture, of a pair of spindly legs wearing what look to be hideously uncomfortable shoes, hints that the mermaid has chosen love and aching legs over life as a sea creature.
Interspersed among the mermaid sculptures are works based on the myth of the unicorn, a creature with the body and head of a horse, the hind legs of a stag, the tail of a lion and a single horn in the middle of its forehead. According to legend, the unicorn appeared only to maidens.
Using a kind of spring green glass that also seems to have a high gold content, Blondel creates another metamorphosis of shapes based on the unicorn's horn. The sculptures range from a kind of sluglike blob and green breasts to a tightly twisted braid that can be regarded as phallic. That shape, paired with the mermaid's lower torso, is an obvious reference to sexual union.
If it all sounds a bit weird, that's because it is. But amazingly, it works. The mermaid myth serves as an allegory for the choices and sacrifices we make for love, while the unicorn becomes a metaphor for longing, desire and frustration. Both remind the viewer of the very real pain that love can bring.
The glass, which Blondel formulated and worked herself, makes the sculptures come alive. Because they are transparent, they mirror every subtle change in the ambient light. In late afternoon sunlight, they glow, sparkle and take on a molten quality, as if Blondel had just pulled them from the furnace. When the sky is cloudy, the sparkle is muted and the pieces seem cold and solid, as if they were made of perfectly clear colored ice.
Through all those transformations, which reinforce the allegorical shape-shifting, one is always aware that glass is highly breakable and must be handled with care. That vulnerability, that impermanence, defies even the transforming power of love and speaks to the very essence of the human condition.
Other pieces, such as "Holy Water Green," a pair of delicate, ornately wrought glass vessels that look like they would be more at home in a bordello than a cathedral, are more direct explorations of the sacred and the profane. French Catholicism, which produced an ultraconservative aspiring pope in Avignon not so long ago, can be as strange and psychologically charged as any folk tale, and Blondel doesn't shy away from combining religious and erotic imagery. But that's another dissertation.
Tesfaye Tessema at Parish
Religious symbolism also plays a central role in Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Tessema's lively exhibition of recent paintings at Parish Gallery. By combining Christian, Jewish and Islamic symbols with African colors and textures and a dose of American abstraction, Tessema's works are like visual appeals for peace and understanding.
The subject and symbols of his paintings clearly reflect the religious and sectarian strife that has plagued his native land over the years. But his style appears to be strongly influenced by the Afro-Cobra movement that flourished in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It combined elements of abstract expressionism with a kind of rhythmic, jazz-inflected improvisational approach and a bright palette derived from African art and textiles.
Tessema may have picked up on that while getting his master's in fine arts at Howard University in the mid-1970s, a time when Howard was an Afro-Cobra hotbed. But by adding his own ideas and symbols, he's managed to give his art a more universally accessible narrative thrust without losing any of Afro-Cobra's energy.
Michele Blondel at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-0088, through Jan. 22.
Tesfaye Tessema at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-944-2310, through Jan. 18.
The Arts Beat column will return next week.
CAPTION: Shape-shifting: Sculptor Michele Blondel's "Twelve Holy Waters" at Marsha Mateyka Gallery.
CAPTION: Tesfaye Tessema mixes religious and African motifs in "Home Bound."