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In the galleries: How DNA provided a platform for intriguing art

Artist’s photos in two series show power in the concept of family

“Tyler, Texas #1” by Laurel Nakadate. (Mason Exhibitions)
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Laurel Nakadate’s surname is Japanese, but the photographer and filmmaker has few links to Japan among relatives identified by genetic testing. Undertaking a project grounded in her own DNA, Nakadate discovered that only three of about 1,500 genetic connections she was able to locate were on her Japanese American father’s side. That’s one reason the Boston- and New York-based artist’s show at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art is called “Mother Line.”

The exhibition primarily includes photos from two series, “Relations” and “The Kingdom.” The first comprises large portraits of DNA-flagged relatives — essentially strangers, chromosomes aside — photographed outdoors at night in open territory while illuminated by only a flashlight. “The Kingdom” consists of snapshots of Nakadate’s late mother into which images of the artist’s son, born too late to be held by his grandmother, have been inserted into grandma’s embrace. These intentionally awkward collaged images bear more emotional than visual power.

The opposite is true of the “Relations” pictures, which are large, uniform in format and dramatically lighted. The subject may be a family of three, a woman holding a dog or a baby in a cradle, but all are targeted with harsh white light and framed by deep-hued night skies. The photos are titled not after the people portrayed in them, but for their locations — such places as Tyler, Texas, and Akron, Ohio.

“I realized at a certain point it wasn’t just about the people, but it was about these landscapes,” the artist notes in the gallery’s statement. Nakadate found people with which she has something in common, and gave them something entirely different to share: the experience of being memorialized in epic, and somewhat ominous, isolation.

Two of Nakadate’s “Mother Line” photos are also featured in “Mother,” a group show she co-organized for Mason Exhibitions Arlington. The selection is mostly photographic prints but incorporates several artist-made books and a video of a performance piece.

Many of the pictures are posed scenes of women, sometimes with a child; several depict nude women who are nursing. Among the latter are Catherine Opie’s self-portrait, which reveals elaborate arm tattoos, and Justine Kurland’s study of six women with children in a shallow, bucolic stream. More ironic are Lisa Kereszi’s found-object study, “Pregnancy Test Stick by the Side of the Road, Connecticut,” and Pao Houa Her’s image of a woman who’s facing a child but gazing at her own face in a hand mirror. Also playful are pictures by Las Hermanas Iglesias (Janelle and Lisa Iglesias) of themselves, one sister cradling her pregnant belly while the other similarly hugs such rounded objects as a mirrored disco ball.

In several photos, a woman shares the frame with, yet is separated from, a child (hers, presumably). A shadowed figure stands in the threshold in Tommy Kha’s picture, a child sits behind a curtain in Nzingah Oyo’s and a nude man is behind a glass shower door in Malerie Marder’s. Perhaps the most solitary figure is Katie Gilmore in her video, doggedly placing white cubes inside drawers that ooze blood-like paint. This performance seems to be about being a woman more than a mother, but as a vision of aloneness, it’s as striking as Nakadate’s portraits of her distant cousins.

Laurel Nakadate: Mother Line Through May 29 at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art, 12001 Market St., Reston.

Mother Through May 29 at Mason Exhibitions Arlington, 3601 Fairfax Dr., Arlington.

Isabel Manalo

Motherhood is among the themes of Isabel Manalo’s show at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, although the overarching concern seems to be fecundity. Some of the exuberantly expressionist paintings in “To Grow a Life” contain renderings of the Maryland artist’s two teenage daughters, but nearly all are filled with flowers. The vibe is tropical, linking the U.S.-born Manalo to her Filipina heritage.

The show’s centerpiece is “What Remains Grows Ravenous,” a five-foot-high floral picture dominated by a large white bloom and a bold crimson backdrop. As in the other paintings, the plants are depicted literally, but the realism is contrasted by such touches as random drips, loose brushstrokes and decorative patterns. The effect is to make the flowers appear to have germinated as much from the artist’s exertions as from the earth. The abstract gestures also indicate “a kind of mistrust” of contemporary society, according to Manalo’s statement.

The show includes sketchy painting-drawings on boards, which are edgier and more urban, and a memorial portrait of the artist’s late father. He’s fitted into a screen-like framework, surrounded by vegetation and bracketed by the Philippines’ pre-colonial script, a motif in Manalo’s work. Similarly, the artist’s daughters appear within, not apart from, nature. Both flowers and drips separate the girls from the viewer, holding them safely within the paintings’ confines. These abundantly flowered portraits seem designed to nurture and protect.

Isabel Manalo: To Grow a Life Through May 29 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Trisha Gupta

The principal subject of Trisha Gupta’s “Neurodiversity: Biodiversity” is the human brain, but that’s not the only thing the Maryland artist depicts in her prints, drawings and sculptures. The sprawling show, throughout most of the Sandy Spring Museum, illustrates structural affinities among brains, fungi and aquatic life. Among the standouts is a collograph, “Ocean Luminescence,” in which parts of jellyfish are highlighted with yellow or white that appear to glow.

The term “neurodiversity” was initially coined to describe people on the autism spectrum, although it has subsequently been applied to other conditions. Gupta’s statement describes herself as a “neurodivergent immigrant woman,” and some of these works appear partly autobiographical. But her art encompasses other psychological and physiological circumstances: It includes covid-themed lung sculptures and a barely 3D fabric rendering of a refugee woman whose body is reduced to “a breath and a heartbeat” while separated from her children.

Most of Gupta’s prints feature artful color contrasts, and some are in a series that offer the same compositions in different arrangements of hues. But “Portrait” shows a face all in spattered indigo, a reference to the blue-skinned gods of Hindu tradition. The picture is a reminder that identity comes from collective culture as well as from individual synapses.

Trisha Gupta: Neurodiversity: Biodiversity Through May 30 at the Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Rd., Sandy Spring, Md.