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In the galleries: Images of consciousness and the expanding universe

Artist explores the world around us and the inner worlds of the self.

An installation view of "Opposing Forces," works by Julie Wolfe that focus on a contemplation of nature and musing about human consciousness. (Hemphill Artworks)
6 min

Like many Washington painters over the past 70 years, Julie Wolfe fills large canvases with bright hues. Unlike her noted predecessors, however, Wolfe isn’t a pure abstractionist. The pictures in her Hemphill Artworks show, “Opposing Forces,” are rooted in contemplation of nature and musings about human consciousness. One in her “Frontispiece” series, all made on found book pages, is a grid of color swatches, each tied to a feeling such as “fear” and “pure affection.”

The frontispieces are prints augmented with gouache and colored pencil, which is characteristic of Wolfe’s eclectic approach. “Completing the Bestiary” is a set of handsome small pictures, painted on wool felt, whose semi-symmetrical contours suggest Rorschach blots. Of the three “Floor Plan” drawings, one is a scheme for a Greco-Roman temple, the most tangible thing portrayed in the show. “Infrastructure” is a seven-foot-high expanse of evenly applied blue acrylic pigment partly covered with looping scrawls of white pencil; it’s a doodle, but an epic one.

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The gallery’s statement links Wolfe’s recent works to images produced by the newly deployed James Webb Space Telescope. There’s indeed something cosmic about “Eta Carinae: Divinatory Claims,” a vast drawing of billowing red specks that takes part of its name from a distant star system. But the two paintings that include “Opposing Forces” in their titles center on colorful, hard-edge, seemingly rotating forms that are more geometric than naturalistic. It could be that Wolfe is viewing different universes, or that she sees one single universe through different lenses.

Julie Wolfe: Opposing Forces Through Oct. 29 at Hemphill Artworks, 434 K St. NW.

William Kentridge

While William Kentridge’s work shares little with Julia Wolfe’s, both artists do like to layer new images atop found documents. The only bits of color in Kentridge’s otherwise monochromatic Gallery Neptune & Brown exhibition are four blue words, “why should I hesitate,” printed atop two pages of data from the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. The regal designation means that the sheets must date to 1931 or earlier, back when South Africa, Kentridge’s homeland, was still a British colony. Such vintage talismans help explain the show’s title, “History, Politics, Memory & Identity.”

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Robert Brown has long represented Kentridge, and this selection of prints made between 1986 and 2021 includes pieces the dealer has shown before. Among the more recent offerings are “Procession,” which arrays etchings of some of Kentridge’s vaguely anthropomorphic sculptures in a sort of parade, and a woodcut of script that reads “Leaning on Air.” (The phrase is a reference to the lack of support for refugees.) The second print renders part of a 500-meter-long temporary drawing stenciled in 2016 with high-pressure water on the dirty walls that contain the Tiber as it flows through Rome.

Kentridge rarely works on the scale of the Rome project, of course, but some of his prints are imposingly large. “Sleeper and Ubu,” one of many pictures inspired by Alfred Jarry’s play “Ubu Roi,” is a six-foot-wide reclining nude. Like much of the artist’s works, it pits strong blacks against soft grays and delicate lines. The contrast between bold and fragile gestures is one way Kentridge represents history’s complexity.

William Kentridge: History, Politics, Memory & Identity Through Oct. 29 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW.

Conflicted Art

In the first few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian-born Washington art collector Yevgen Nemchenko began buying works by artists from his native land. His purchases, now on exhibit under the title “Conflicted Art” at the Arts Club of Washington, are mostly topical and quickly executed. But some are as artful as they are timely.

Made just before the attack began, Sergey Simutin’s crisp realist drawing of a traffic light represents what the show’s website calls “the challenge of choice.” Roman Bonchuk’s exceptionally detailed watercolor partly transforms the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, the Ukrainian army’s redoubt in Mariupol, into what its title calls “The Temple of Spirit, Heroism and Freedom.” In Alexander Bondarchuk’s mostly black-and-white pastel, men praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall are wrapped in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.

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Several of the entries, such as Vitalij Zdebskij’s deft depiction of a childish Vladimir Putin in a boy’s Soviet Young Pioneer uniform, are essentially political cartoons. Others draw on older artistic, and religious, traditions. Eugene Baraban applies ornate Easter egg embellishments to a small wooden piece in the shape of a bomb, while Katya Bondarec collages a reproduction of Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” so that Mary cradles a map of Ukraine. Both artworks combine centuries-old tradition with an immediate sense of crisis.

Conflicted Art Through Oct. 29 at the Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I St. NW.

Travis Childers

A land planner on a microcosmic scale, Travis Childers uses everyday stuff, and one specialized material, to construct tiny worlds. The pieces in “Once in a Lifetime,” the Northern Virginian’s show at Artists & Makers, include porcupine-like creatures made of hundreds of black ballpoint-pen tops, as well as collages assembled from small images lifted from newspapers with bits of clear tape. But the wittiest items required a trip to a model railway shop.

Childers employs, to pointed effect, such trackside scene-setters as simulated flora and miniature human figures. Two of the figures are packed inside syringes to memorialize drug victims, while a toy-size cemetery with an open grave serves as a memento mori. Playfully but ominously, a cakelike chunk of hilly landscape is served on a plate, complete with a fork on the side, to represent human consumption of the environment.

Among the collages are one-dimensional arrays of eyes, faces and city buildings, the last tightly arranged in an urban grid, and 3D ones of vegetation on curving shaped canvases. Location is everything in real estate, so Childers’s “Hidden Valley” lurks inside a plastic foam container that’s tucked into a corner. It’s a site for viewers to commune with nature, although they’d have to be HO-scale to enter it.

Travis Childers: Once in a Lifetime Through Oct. 26 at Artists & Makers, 11810 Parklawn Dr., Rockville.

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