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In the galleries: Voyages through time, space and the seas

Three exhibits focus on oceanic views grounded in past events and environmental messages

“Night Boat for Joe” by Micheline Klagsbrun, part of her “Crossings” exhibit. (Micheline Klagsbrun)
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History is one of the themes of Micheline Klagsbrun’s “Crossings” at Studio Gallery, so it’s fitting that the artist employs found objects whose weathered surfaces testify to past uses and experiences. Lengths of deteriorated driftwood serve as hulls while sections of tattered netting evoke sails in the D.C. artist’s recent pieces, which expand on the work in her smaller previous exhibition, “Night Boats.” That show was inspired by a ship’s log of the 1941 voyage that Klagsbrun’s Holocaust-escaping father took from Portugal to Britain. This one extends the metaphor to encompass various journeys, psychic as well as physical, and including the passage into death.

Many of the sculptures hang, often in midair, as if to simulate the precariousness of a ship at sea. Some of the banner pieces are ghostly white-on-cobalt cyanotypes or include backdrops made with the process, best known for its use in architectural blueprints. Most of the free-standing, ship-like assemblages are small, but “Night Boat of the Golden Moon,” whose twisting wooden base is painted white, stretches more than eight feet. The found objects are “seemingly fragile yet in fact resilient,” notes the artist’s statement.

Among Klagsbrun’s notable influences is Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” whose tales of transformation — often of women altered by imperious gods — suit the artist’s interest in protean forms. This show features a few works titled after lines from Victorian-age British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, such as “Laced With Fire,” whose jagged voids were singed by actual flame. Hopkins, whose verse didn’t attract a following until decades after his death, seems an apt reference for “Crossings.” The poet was a self-styled traditionalist who came to be seen as a modernist, illustrating how life journeys can lead to entirely unexpected destinations.

Water imagery abounds in Elizabeth Curren’s “Impact,” also at Studio, but human destiny is seen differently by the artist’s handsome prints, paintings and handmade books. Her subject is climate change, represented by dwindling glaciers and advancing fires. Mankind’s presence is suggested only occasionally, notably by a few tiny, simple houses dwarfed by smoke and flame in “Armageddon Approaching,” a painting-collage. The pictorial forms are stark and flat, although enhanced by dappled colors, in most of Curren’s works. But there’s literal depth to two “tunnel books” that develop sequences through multiple cutout pages. “Paradise Fire” and “Through Blue Ice” draw the eye into layered accounts of burning and melting.

Studio’s third set of oceanic views is Carolee Jakes’s “Something Old, Something New,” a show of paintings, prints and one mixed-media work. Included are woodblocks of intricate, nautilus-like forms underwater and a “Tsunami” in which loosely painted waves crest behind a hard-edge globe. That picture’s contrast between surges and circles continues in “Just Another Cloudy Day in May,” a striking triptych in which the center panel is higher than the two flanking it. If Jakes’s landscapes don’t present philosophical or environmental parables, their ingenious compositions have a narrative flair.

Micheline Klagsbrun: Crossings; Elizabeth Curren: Impact; and Carolee Jakes: Something Old, Something New Through May 21 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW.

Azikiwe Mohammed

Transformer is an intimate space, the size of a cramped dining room where only three people can sit at the table, since the table’s fourth side has to fit against the wall. That’s how Azikiwe Mohammed has placed the central piece of furniture in his exhibition, “Shared Words, Split Catfish and Sweet Tea: An Open Platform for Discussion.” Three members of the Auntie/Uncle Julius family, depicted by two-sided paintings on cutout panels, are seated for a meal that exemplifies African American foodways.

The bulk of Mohammed’s multimedia installation is painted. In addition to the diners, the New York artist has simulated paneling on the walls, which are hung with naive-style pictures that mostly depict edibles. But the food on the main table and the smaller sideboard is represented by glowing neon outlines. Also included are found objects, including cut-glass serving containers and fancy ladies’ hats of the sort worn to traditional Black churches, and recordings of possible dinnertime conversations.

According to the gallery’s statement, the show is part of “Mohammed’s reflections upon Black people’s relationship to time — a scarcity and luxury for many as they navigate the responsibilities and demands of living.” But the installation also can be experienced as a place out of time, a room just big enough for visitors to take a few steps into an idealized past.

Azikiwe Mohammed: Shared Words, Split Catfish and Sweet Tea: An Open Platform for Discussion Through May 21 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW.

Helen Zughaib

When Helen Zughaib showed her “Syrian Migration” series at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds three years ago, it comprised 25 paintings. Now the Arab American D.C. artist’s oft-exhibited commentary on the exodus from a devastated Syria has grown to 43 pictures, and is on display just a few blocks away in a much more visited location: the Kennedy Center, where Zughaib is a social practice resident.

The paintings are in Zughaib’s trademark mode, executed primarily in gouache with bold colors and simple, stylized forms. But the artist took inspiration, sometimes even reworking specific compositions, from the 60-panel “Migration Series” in which Jacob Lawrence documented Black Americans’ early-20th-century journey out of the South. (Half of Lawrence’s series is owned by the Phillips Collection.) In one of Zughaib’s updates, for example, Lawrence’s train gates offering passage to the North become airport portals leading to Turkey and Europe.

The Syrians are usually outfitted in robes with vibrant, two-toned stripes that suggest both traditional clothing and abstract color-field painting. The exuberant garb contrasts with explosions, barbed-wire fences, fighter planes overheard and waves that threaten to swallow small, overloaded boats. To see such perils depicted in Zughaib’s bright, tidy style is jarring and poignant.

Helen Zughaib: Syrian Migration Through May 27 at the Hall of Nations, Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.

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