The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the galleries: Illustrating our broken relationship with Earth

Artists’ visions aim to bring a sense of balance to environmental injustices

“Celeste” by Werllayne Nunes, included in the “Fragile Beauty” exhibit of environmental-related works by 33 Washington artists. ( I Street Galleries)
6 min

The environmental and social-justice themes of “Fragile Beauty” are expressed mostly with paint, ink and pixels, but some of the 33 Washington artists in this juried show at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ I Street Galleries work with materials that are charged with import. Gloria Vasquez mounts an elegant bowl made of onion skins and aluminum shards on a stand of dried vines, and Patrick McDonough paints a beehive pattern on decommissioned solar panels. These artists meld the natural and industrial in both imagery and actuality.

Some of the other artists employ media that, if not metaphorical, are uncommon and distinctive. In Jessica van Brakle’s drawing-painting, made partly with mica-infused pigment, a tree melds with machinery to represent human effects on the landscape. Monica Jahan Bose’s installation juxtaposes rice and lentils in silvery dishes with hanging saris. Michėle Colburn indirectly reflects on violence in pretty abstractions executed with watercolor mixed with gunpowder. Regina Miele’s aerial views of the degraded atmosphere conjure vapor with charcoal and charcoal dust.

Several artists focus on people, places or animals under threat. Frank Hallam Day’s dramatically lighted photos document Ghanaian watermen and -women who contend with overfished waters. Barry D. Lindley’s delicate watercolors portray drilling rigs in the oil-contaminated Gulf of Mexico. Steven Muñoz’s exceptionally detailed, poster-like woodcuts enumerate threats to bees and butterflies. Amanda Sauer’s eight-photo series, made over seven years, chronicles a D.C. tree destroyed by invasive beetles. Farther afield, Werllayne Nunes realistically paints an exuberant girl in front of a Brazilian favela transformed from slum to wonderland by the insertion of fanciful gold-leaf domes.

Themes aside, “Fragile Beauty” is an impressive survey of contemporary D.C. artists with strong work by people who have exhibited elsewhere recently, including Chris Combs, Anna U Davis, Cheryl D. Edwards, Michael Iacovone and Alexandra Silverthorne. This may not be an upbeat show, but the impression it offers of the Washington art scene is auspicious.

Fragile Beauty Through July 1 at I Street Galleries, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 200 I St. SE.

Julio Valdez

Water takes myriad forms, and so do Julio Valdez’s paintings and prints of aqueous surfaces and depths. The artist’s “Mapping the Layers” begins with detailed, photorealist renderings of shimmering blue-green expanses, inspired by the sea that laps his birthplace, the Dominican Republic. But his show at the Art Museum of the Americas also includes pictures that employ a more folkloric mode, as well as a few that are realistic in style but not color, depicting water in shades of red.

Valdez, who divides his time between Washington and New York City, often paints beings that are partly or entirely underwater. He expertly portrays human limbs — or fish, lizards or vegetation — as distorted by the ripples and reflections that play across the ocean. Some of the pictures are as benign as a day at the beach, but others smack of danger. A sea full of bodies suggests the casualties of the Middle Passage, or of disastrous attempts to sail free of troubled Caribbean countries.

The political implications of such scenes become more explicit in Valdez’s mixed-media drawings of police violence and victims, as well as “I Can’t Breathe” protesters. The show also features rainforest scenes in earthy hues and a room of prints that includes “Brother and Plantanos,” in which the outline of a man’s face emerges from an oval packed with plantains. As in Valdez’s water pictures, person and environment cannot be separated.

Julio Valdez: Mapping the Layers Through July 12 at Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW.

Eto Otitigbe

At first glance, the Eto Otitigbe paintings at Morton Fine Art don’t seem to have much connection with his best known ventures, which are public sculptures. But the swirling, inky facades of the artist’s “Materiel Remains: Consider This a Blueprint, a Series of Blueprints” are inscribed with intricate designs that have an architectural quality. These half-hidden forms do suggest blueprints, albeit for purely theoretical structures.

Otitigbe, who teaches sculpture at Brooklyn College, generally paints on valchromat, a variety of colored plywood introduced about 25 years ago. The artist buries the substance’s bright hues under mostly black paint, which contrasts the lines engraved by a computer-controlled process. The cleanly cut patterns are as precise as the applied pigment is loose and smeary.

The artist is a member of the design team for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, and his paintings do allude indirectly to hidden African American history. But they can also be seen as embodying the hidden structures that underlie a seemingly disordered universe. Trained as an engineer at MIT and Stanford, Otitigbe imposes structure even as he indulges painterly intuition.

Eto Otitigbe: Materiel Remains: Consider This a Blueprint, a Series of Blueprints Through June 28 at Morton Fine Art, 52 O St. NW, No. 302. Open by appointment.

Gough, Kahle & Peck

The title of Adah Rose Gallery’s “A Charm Invests a Face” is from an Emily Dickinson poem that refers to a visage “imperfectly beheld.” That phrase doesn’t apply to Judith Peck’s oils, whose style is derived from classical Dutch painting. The haunting renderings of women against dark backgrounds are impeccably made, although they portray themes and moods more than individuals. The subject of “Indifference” wears a blindfold, while in “Facing Darkness” she has her back to the viewer — two strategies for deflecting the world, or others’ gazes.

Sarah Kahle’s portraits, mostly of people from the LGBTQ community, are direct yet impressionistic, softened by the use of watercolor. The show’s third contributor, Olivia Alonso Gough, is a photographer whose depictions are doubly environmental: They show people at home, often flanked by real or simulated plants. Gough’s “J.V.” is lighted like a Renaissance canvas, but could hardly be less formal. It depicts a person who’s slumped on the floor, partly supported by a sofa, and gazing askance. Like Peck’s half-hidden women, the photo’s subject is both central and somehow absent.

Olivia Alonso Gough, Sarah Kahle and Judith Peck: A Charm Invests a Face Through June 30 at Adah Rose Gallery, 3766 Howard Ave., Kensington.