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In the galleries: Sculptures take us beyond the conventional

Two artists’ shows visualize challenging relationships between art, space and the viewer

Hae Won Sohn's "(Chrysanthemum),” part of her “Unspoken Volumes” exhibit focusing on simulated artifacts. (Garrett Carroll/Courtesy of the artist/Stamp Gallery, University of Maryland, College Park)

There’s something archaeological about the art of Danni O’Brien and Hae Won Sohn, whose mixed-media sculptures are newly made yet hint at antiquity. The two artists employ such solid materials as stucco and plaster, but softer, more nebulous aspects also characterize the pieces in O’Brien’s “Cross Sections,” at Tephra ICA at Signature, and Sohn’s “Unspoken Volumes,” at the University of Maryland’s Stamp Gallery. The women’s creations are simultaneously fixed and protean.

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O’Brien’s wall sculptures are based on found diagrams from sources as diverse as a plumbing manual or the natural contraception guide that yielded “Homemade Barriers,” an atypical piece with two embedded LEDs. That work is blue and green, but the Baltimore-based artist is more partial to pink or a pinkish tan that resembles rosy shades of marble. Pink is also common in plastic consumer products, which O’Brien incorporates into such assemblages as “Hot Dog Mitosis,” derived from a biological illustration but centered on a dog food bowl. The bowl is one of several recessed forms that give the sculptures both literal and symbolic depth.

The artist showed spindly and seemingly haphazard free-standing sculptures at Pazo Fine Art recently, but this show’s pieces appear more focused and cohesive. Yet O’Brien does often append random objects: A metal cleat is attached to the top of one piece, and another contains a cosmetics organizer filled with shards of a ceramic vessel. The container and the fragments are pink, as is the insulation foam that endows these hard-edge pieces with partial squishiness. Both the color and texture suggest the human body, a work of architecture that’s far more adaptable than a stucco wall or a plastic bowl.

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Where O’Brien jumbles materials and ideas, Sohn produces simulated artifacts that are starker and purer. She makes her roughly cast, seemingly fragmentary sculptures out of plaster or gypsum cement, which dry to stone-like hardness. But her statement refers to the pieces as “blurry objects.” The blur is an effect of transition, whether in a shadowy video that depicts a succession of simple shapes or in a wall-mounted lineup of 10 identical forms whose colors slowly shift from off-white to deep gray.

Such neutral tones are typical of the South Korea-born, New York-based artist’s work, although oxide pigments turn some pieces pale pink, light green or even multihued. Whatever their color, the sculptures appear as much found as made, the result of molding processes that Sohn guides but doesn’t fully control. Her objects may be blurred by a sort of conceptual motion, but they appear ancient and even archetypal.

Danni O’Brien: Cross Sections Through Oct. 11 at Tephra ICA at Signature, 11850 Freedom Dr., Reston.

Hae Won Sohn: Unspoken Volumes Through Oct. 8 at Stamp Gallery, Adele H. Stamp Student Union, University of Maryland at College Park.

Hatfield & Khaleghiyazdi

Caroline Hatfield also works with materials derived from the Earth, but she does so to highlight the violence of the extraction industry. The Tennessee native’s VisArts show, “Foresights & Futures,” is almost entirely in shades of metallic gray and mineral black. Among its most striking items are wall sculptures made of spatters of once-molten aluminum from a foundry, mounted on black panels. These hang alongside digitally altered topographical photographs on which the artist has drawn in black ink and gray pencil. Hatfield’s statement calls those pictures “estranged landscapes,” a term that might well apply to much of mined, denuded Appalachia.

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The show’s centerpiece is an installation of coal slag (a recurring element in the artist’s work) heaped around an illuminated beacon from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Bull Run Fossil Plant, which is scheduled to close next year. The beacon’s red light is the only touch of color in the gallery, but its glow amid the hillocks of slag denotes not life but danger. As evoked here, the wrecked valleys and ridges of Hatfield’s home state can be seen as a dark prophecy.

Hatfield’s art is autobiographical in a way, but not as specifically as Maryam Khaleghiyazdi’s “Living in Between,” a digital animation that provides the title of her three-video show, also at VisArts. The black-and-white piece uses a QR code to offer visitors an individual chronology through 26 individually labeled steps of life in the United States as an Iranian emigre. (One is “New President Elected,” which led to the 2017 immigration order that barred people from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations from the United States.)

The Duluth, Minn.-based artist is also exhibiting “Morphing Shadow,” an animated collage of a lonely exile’s everyday life, presided over by a crying face. Divided into eight rectangles and rendered mostly in pink, brown and black, the video is visually scattered but emotionally direct.

Caroline Hatfield: Foresights & Futures and Maryam Khaleghiyazdi: Living in Between Through Oct. 16 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville.

Kesha Bruce

The title of Kesha Bruce’s show at Morton Fine Art, “Take Me to the Water,” is an homage to Nina Simone’s performance of that gospel song. Bruce identifies with water, “a force that follows its own paths and forms its own shapes,” according to the gallery’s note. Ironically, the collagist-painter lives in one of the nation’s driest states, Arizona, where she is director of artist programs for the state’s arts commission.

Bruce reports that her palette has gotten sunnier since she moved from the Midwest to the Southwest, yet landscape is vestigial in her work. The artist instinctively assembles scraps of wrinkled fabric that are painted — and sometimes overpainted — to craft patchworks that may suggest but never literally depict the natural world.

A leaflike form dominates the top of “La Sirene,” and the mostly green “Like Florida Water” has a cool rainforest vibe. But for every “Memory of Matala,” whose blue blocks above tan ones evoke sky overhead earth, there are several pictures whose intricate, quilt-like compositions appear purely abstract. The real subject of this artwork is transformation: cutting, painting and pasting pieces of secondhand textiles into arrangements that are unexpected and distinctively Bruce’s own.

Kesha Bruce: Take Me to the Water Through Oct. 11 at Morton Fine Art, 52 O St. NW, No. 302.