You have to be careful when wielding a knife. Cutting the matrix for a woodblock or linoleum print requires finesse, diligence and calculation. The resulting artwork has an innate affinity for orderly, well-balanced depictions in which no stroke is left to chance. That doesn’t mean that such prints are necessarily realistic, as “Relief,” at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, demonstrates. The show, which spotlights 15 artists from across the country, is packed with meticulously etched whimsies and reveries, mostly based on the natural world.
Among the many frisky entries are pictures of anthropomorphized creatures both natural and mythological. Heather O’Hara’s coyotes sit at a typewriter or carry a balloon, wearing everyday human clothing, while Brent Bonds’s bullheaded “Minitaurs” sport only men’s briefs. Johanna Mueller’s “Jackalope,” a relief engraving that riffs on the fictitious hybrid proffered on postcards in the American West, embeds a small antelope inside a comparatively mammoth rabbit. Despite the impossible arrangement, both animals are realized with the precision of a natural history textbook.
Several of the most striking efforts depict idealized cycles of life, such as the two “Young Pines” that neatly entwine in a print by Valerie Lueth’s Tugboat Printshop. Other kindred pieces required post-etching use of a blade: Daniella Napolitano’s “And to All the Beasts of the Earth and All the Birds in the Sky . . .” and Melissa Harshman’s “Orange and Red” are made of individual prints that were cut out and assembled into circular compositions.
Napolitano’s work sends black-and-white wolves and raptors, flawlessly detailed, in a roundabout frolic; Harshman’s is a wall-filling bouquet of individual blooms in a narrow range of warm colors, centered on a nucleus of crocheted yarn flowers. The three-dimensional flourish seems apt in a show with such a strong, if playful, sense of the material world.
Other portrayals of nature are rendered fantastic partly by the canny use of color. Nicole Parker’s stylized moth nestles in a bright red cocoon, and Lili Arnold’s hand-colored “Sunset Crows” perch before a sky that shifts from blue to pink. In Jun Lee’s monumental yet bucolic “Whisper and Wait,” rabbits gaze at a moon that appears to be made of flowers; the print’s intricate black lines are supplemented by blocks of red-violet — the hue of the bunnies’ luminous eyes — and light blue.
“Whisper and Wait” also appears in “Ink It,” BlackRock Center for the Arts’ biennial prints exhibition. Featuring 84 regional artists and juried by virtuoso local printmaker Susan Goldman, the show is available only online, both as individual artworks and a virtual walk-through.
The prints that come across best on a computer screen are direct in both mode — often black-and-white — and message. Caroline Thorington’s “COVID Feat” substitutes human feet for the virus’s spikes, while Jacqui Crocetta’s “(Dis) placement” reacts gloomily to the Wharf, the Southwest D.C. mega-development the artist sees as exemplifying gentrification. Sasa Aakil adds blood red for the text-only “No More,” a stirring response to violence against Black people.
Quieter entries include Cory Oberndorfer’s monochromatic sketch of one of his colorful Popsicle paintings; Steven Munoz’s “Binary Bee,” a tribute to the indispensable insects’s math skills; and Dee Henry’s “1976 Version 2,” actually printed from jeans she wore to high school that year. Henry’s is personal, inventive and pretty funny.
Derived from photos of friends and relatives, some of the characters in Philip Livingston’s “Family, Ghosts and Other Strangers” would be recognizable to their acquaintances. The figures in the Athenaeum show, drawn with pastel and pencil and supplemented by paint, are loose yet realistic. Other folks, however, appear merely as silhouettes. They’ve been distilled to symbolic, or merely compositional, elements.
The D.C. artist emulates haiku, which “does not insist,” he notes in a statement. His pictures are uncrowded, with some details suggested by the simplest of gestures, such as quick spatters that represent flowers. Like traditional East Asian artists, Livingston considers open space integral to the design — although instead of blank paper or fabric, he leaves areas of untouched birch panel. Livingston’s art background includes sculpture and set design, and his intent is for the depictions to appear to hover above the surface and “float toward the viewer.”
Many of the vignettes, which include several beach scenes, evoke family memories of no particular moment. But a few have a timelier outlook, as suggested by such titles as “Separation at the Border” and “Mourning (for RBG).” These pictures employ the same style as the others, but their tone is more insistent.
Philip Livingston: Family, Ghosts and Other Strangers Through April 4 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria.
Photographs have always been virtual, in a sense, since they depict instants that have forever passed. But photos became more remote from actuality with the advent of digital technology, which produces images that aren’t fixed on a strip of film. Obiekwe “Obi” Okolo seems to have an opinion on that, expressed by the box of black-and-white film that sits at the center of the winkingly titled “Objective: Things That Are Real.” The film is far from the only 3-D object in the Nigerian-born D.C. photographer’s show at the Twelve’s pop-up gallery. In fact, each picture is paired with the item seen in it.
Okolo photographs people as they cradle things they own, chosen because they have some personal resonance. These range from the venerable, notably a pewter mini-samovar, to the merely obsolete, such as a videocassette of “Muppet Treasure Island.” Reggie Black — like Okolo, a member of the Twelve art and retail collective — holds a graffiti-ready Japanese marker. A camera, lights and a dark backdrop sit near the film box, ready for the next setup.
The photos are stately, with dramatic lighting and robust blacks, if perhaps not so philosophical as the artist’s statement proposes. Photographing objects is a way to “search for truth in an increasingly idea-plagued world,” he writes. But Okolo’s approach represents just one of many possible ideas of objectivity.
Obiekwe Okolo: Objective: Things That Are Real Through March 31 at the Twelve, 1262 Fifth St. NE.