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In the galleries: An invitation to step inside the internet

Massive work attempts to bridge the gap between spaces we see and navigate in the physical and online worlds

An installation view of Amy Schlissel's "Auto-Bio-Geographies” at VisArts. Included in the exhibit is “Hyper Atlas,” an attempt to depict the internet. (Gregory R Staley Photography)
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An unreadable map of an overwhelmingly complex reality, Amy Schissel’s “Hyper Atlas” is an attempt to depict the internet in ink, charcoal, pencil and paint. Fittingly, the room-spanning centerpiece of the artist’s “Auto-Bio-Geographies” combines hand-drawn and machine-generated lines. The massive picture on display in VisArts’s Gibbs Street Gallery is rendered primarily in steely shades of black and gray, but punctuated by dots and dashes of colored pencil. The drawing is “infused with information friction,” says the Miami-based Canadian artist’s statement.

The fanciful schematic has both figurative and actual depths. It includes digital prints that are collaged into the whole and then partly painted over, as well as drawn and painted details that appear to float above, or sink beneath, the heavily worked surface. White ribbons curl across the composition, their free forms in contrast to the tightly overlapping circles produced by a mechanical plotter. Rays emanate from a black hole near the piece’s center, suggesting a single origin point that many of the other details sprawlingly contradict.

If this isn’t literally what the web looks like, it does evoke what electronic hyperconnectivity feels like. The picture is overwhelming yet intimate, confoundingly involved yet spangled with bursts of illumination. Schissel’s metaverse is too flat to be entered, but nonetheless beckons the viewer in.

While Schissel gives impersonal architecture a subjective feel, two other artists exhibiting at VisArts anchor their multimedia work in autobiography. Baltimore-based Sughra Hussainy recounts her own saga using traditional art techniques learned in her native Afghanistan. Rex Delafkaran, a Washingtonian, uses video and sculpture to express what her statement calls “my Iranian American queer identity.”

Most of the works in Hussainy’s Common Ground Gallery show, “Are We in the Story or Is the Story in Us,” are derived from her manuscript about her life, illustrated in the style of classical Persian miniatures. Serene moments alternate with scenes of war, represented by such symbols as an airborne military drone and a lion with explosives strapped to its torso.

Some pieces are collaborations with Hussainy’s brother or other relatives. A photo of the exultant artist upon graduation from art school was turned into a embroidered tapestry completed by three women after they fled to Pakistan. One of the two videos observes Hussainy’s black-clad niece, an aspiring artist, sitting at an antique sewing machine that symbolizes the Taliban-decreed return of women to traditional roles. In broadening her memoir to include her extended family, Hussainy has made it richer and darker.

The ingredients of “Hot Crop,” Delafkaran’s Concourse Gallery show, include video, ceramics and the verse of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian-language mystic poet. There’s also an unexpected element: heat. Three of the assemblages incorporate electric warmers of various kinds, including one that dangles threateningly over four beeswax tongues that, according to the piece’s title, have “very little to say.”

Video screens display the artist in performance, using such props as a cinder block (representing the construction of identity) and a Persian carpet. Many of the references are private, and indeed Delafkaran seems uncertain about the possibility of wider discourse. “Mistranslation and Beauty” consists of words translated by computer software from Farsi to English and back again, rendered in faint text and edged in orange spray paint. The words are central yet nearly indecipherable, a visual metaphor for mystery and miscommunication.

Amy Schissel: Auto-Bio-Geographies; Sughra Hussainy: Are We in the Story or Is the Story in Us; and Rex Delafkaran: Hot Crop Through Jan. 8 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville.

Nepenthe Gallery

First-time visitors to a strip-center gallery in an outside-the-Beltway suburb might reasonably expect to encounter modest landscapes and still lifes painted by local artists. Nepenthe Gallery has those, but also a lot more. This eclectic and ambitious venue, which opened this spring a few miles north of Mount Vernon, is showing diverse work by more than 50 painters, sculptors and photographers.

The featured artist in December is Ann Sklar, who makes handsome near-abstract landscapes, with blocks of vivid hues and strong horizon lines. But the Maine artist’s distilled vistas fill only a small section of a wall dominated by a massive triptych by Monique Rollins, an Italy-based American painter. Abstract yet also suggestive of landscape, her exuberant picture is forged mostly of tans and browns, punctuated by patches of blue that evoke sky or water.

Nearby are anguished collage-paintings by Ukrainian American artist Ola Rondiak, whose patchwork elements refer to her ancestral homeland’s turbulent history and present. Much cooler in tone are Nathan Myhrvold’s blue-tinted close-up photograph of a cabbage, glistening and veiny, and Maremi Andreozzi’s small paintings in which white lines curve and zigzag across brightly colored patterns. The Northern Virginia artist has often shown her portraits of faceless women whose stories are told by their clothing and surroundings, and these sleek pictures offer a variation on the same strategy: emptying the foreground to highlight the backdrop.

Group show Continuing indefinitely at Nepenthe Gallery, 7918 Fort Hunt Rd., Alexandria, Fairfax County.

Qais Al-Sindy

Perhaps the most important pairing in “Binaries,” Qais Al-Sindy’s show at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, is of war and peace. Among the Baghdad-born and -educated Californian’s vigorously gestural paintings are scenes of abandoned tanks, resting in ruin as accidental monuments to combat. Equally stark is a depiction of bones, piled together as what appears to be another sort of unofficial memorial.

The artist’s expressionist pictures always combine softly mottled colors and roughly sketched forms, but some are more realistic than others. A symbolic scene of a man carrying his horse on his shoulders is relatively crisp, although the areas around the central image are scarcely defined. Other paintings are much looser, verging on cubism or featuring meaty flesh rendered in the manner of Francis Bacon. Somewhat gentler are the near-abstract “Harmonious Binaries,” spattered with white paint, and “The Last Look at the Homeland,” in which a girl looks over her shoulder. The theme is wistful, but the picture’s red backdrop is bold and immediate. Such dynamic juxtapositions are essential to Al-Sindy’s dualistic approach.

Qais Al-Sindy: Binaries Through Jan. 6 at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U St. NW. Open by appointment.