“I am enraptured by the violence of nature,” writes Olivia Rodriguez about her recent work. A few months ago, when Washington museums and galleries were packed with images of natural beauty, this might have seemed an odd statement. But that season has passed. Currently, local art spaces are displaying rot, maggots and mold.
Rodriguez’s “Immortal Decay,” at the Curator’s Office, features mushrooms and other fungi, as well as various types of insects and mollusks, dining on substances both natural (wood, earth) and less so (chewing gum, a half-eaten hamburger). Some of the flora and fauna are attached directly to the walls, as if the gallery’s blank white interior was in fact teeming with unruly life. The objects look so real that they appear to be genuine organisms, preserved under some sort of plastic coating. But they’re actually crafted from epoxy resin and painted with acrylic pigments; of the dozens of things in the show, only one clump of dirt is actually what it appears to be.
Rodriguez’s work could be even more confrontational. British bad-boy artist Damien Hirst has exhibited dead animals, as small as butterflies and as large as sharks, as works of art. Rodriguez’s sculptures are tidier than that, yet still a calculated offense to the idea of art as heroic, uplifting and beautiful. But then, beauty is a matter of opinion — and of convention. “The most beautiful universe is sweepings piled at random,” wrote the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Compared to that unsentimental assessment, “Immortal Decay” is fairly gentle. After all, it includes ladybugs.
Selin Balci doesn’t make art about biology; she lets biology make the art. Her “Contaminations” feature microbial growth on boards, which are then arrayed in patterns that provide some order to the haphazard flowering of black, gray and green. Balci’s subtle, slightly creepy work is included in two current group shows of young artists: “Academy 2012” at Conner Contemporary Art and “Fellows Converge 2012: Obstructions” at the Hamiltonian Gallery.
The latter exhibition showcases the artists who have had Hamiltonian fellowships this year, who were asked to work under certain constraints or “obstructions.” (The premise comes from Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth’s 2003 film, “The Five Obstructions,” in which von Trier put severe limitations on five shorts directed by Leth.) The funniest (and most impossible) impediment for this conceptual-art venture? “Make a piece that is not conceptually driven.”
The obstacles placed in the paths of the Hamiltonians didn’t hobble them significantly; the resulting works resemble those the artists have shown previously. Among the highlights are Joyce Yu-Jean Lee’s slightly pixelated video of eight fidgety people slumped in a cell, as if trapped in Old Master painting; Sarah Knebel’s large, upward-gazing photo-collage of many kinds of blooms, all digitally grafted onto the branches of a single tree; and Nora Howell’s Asian-style lanterns, whose simple black-and-white illustrations of urban life were made with the help of people who live on her Baltimore block. These neighbors don’t seem to have obstructed her at all.
Balci is just one of nearly two dozen artists represented in “Academy 2012,” a survey of recent graduates from major area art schools. In addition to mildew, the media include painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, installation and, of course, video. Nature is a motif of such works as Pablo Garcia Lopez’s “Where the Wild Tulips Grow,” a video loop in which purple ichor seeps into and then recedes from white blooms. Somewhat akin are Adam Nelson’s “Alluvion,” a wall sculpture whose petals suggest both natural and machined forms, and Josh Charles’s intricate drawings of tendrils and birds. But such florals as Alexander Pearce’s “Jan Brueghel Flower Painting” are concerned more with art history than botany.
Ryan Carr Johnson and Samuel Scharf take aim, all too literally, at bygone art trends with “Noland A.D.” and “Frankenthaler A.D.” — 1960s-style color-field paintings updated with gold paint and bullet holes. Wesley Clark’s “Four Five Six” presents two large slabs of weathered wood, painted with parts of a target. (Kenneth Noland often painted target forms.) In addition to shooting, there’s kissing, although Zachary Goldman’s “The Kissing Glass” is designed to keep lips from actually touching. Next to the device are Windex, squeegees and paper towels for neatening up any remnants of emotion.
As in previous Conner student shows, the pieces are eclectic and well-crafted, if less than startling. “Pure” abstraction is rare, graffiti remains influential and images of the suburbs are common. Such video makers as Heather Stratton and Misha Capecchi show the customary vid-art interest in ritual and repetition. Text isn’t as common as it often is in today’s visual art, but Toym Imao’s “Reversed, Expanded, Exploded — POPped!” uses words to reveal some doubt about contemporary art (or at least its biggest stars). This complex painting/installation depicts a fire-damaged Jeff Koons amid strips of paper cut from a well-known parable: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Swedish-bred D.C. artist Anna U. Davis doesn’t show much interest in nature, aside from that branch of zoology that includes human sexuality; there are some carnal details in her show at BloomBars. These mixed-media paintings focus instead on society, sometimes benign but often a little ominous. “I begin by sketching out something that bothers me,” she writes, “and end up making something that makes me feel good.”
Among the things that bother her are the U.S. health-care system, the subject of a picture centered on a square cross, with the figures of four men — judge, doctor, pharmacist, insurance claims agent — placed to make the cross resemble a swastika. That’s the most politically pointed work in the show, but there’s social commentary in the details of the other paintings, which incorporate glossy-magazine images of hair, cars, guns, meat and internal organs into scenes featuring the multiracial people — gray-skinned and pink-lipped — that Davis calls “Frocasian.”
Outlined in bold black lines and rendered in an angular, near-Cubist style, the artist’s subjects are flat, but the collaged elements add a sense of depth. Some of the paintings include mosaic-like backgrounds of painted squares that suggest a third dimension. So it’s no great stretch for Davis to include a relief sculpture, “The Reluctant Builder,” among the paintings. This figure of a guitarist, sitting on his amplifier, is as anchored to the wall as the other works, yet its escape from the picture plane seems complete.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Aug. 4 at the Curator’s Office, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-387-1008; www.curatorsoffice.com.
on view through Aug. 11 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Suite 101; 202-332-1116; hamiltoniangallery.com.
on view through Aug. 18 at Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave. NE; 202-588-8750, www.connercontemporary.com.
on view through Aug. 5 at the Gallery at Bloombars, 3222 11th St. NW; 202-567-7713; www.bloombars.com.