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In the galleries: Depicting an energy of constant fluctuation and growth

Artist Gisela Colón in her studio, 2020, Duarte, Calif. (Harry Eelman Courtesy of Gisela Colón and GAVLAK Los Angeles | Palm Beach)
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Most of Gisela Colón’s abstract sculptures are shimmery, translucent and bulbous, suggesting eggs, cells and chrysalises. Yet the style the Los Angeles artist calls “organic minimalism” relies on high-tech materials. The pieces in her Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art show, “Quantum Shift,” recall the sleek contours and flawless surfaces of 1960s California “finish fetish” art, inspired by such burnished conveyances as hot rods and jet planes. Indeed, aerospace-industry suppliers developed the carbon-fiber material that Colón uses for larger pieces such as “Parabolic Monolith Iridium,” installed outdoors last week.

Before January, Tephra ICA was the Greater Reston Arts Center in Virginia, which sponsored several installations in the park across the street from its Reston Town Center home. The gallery’s new name, taken from the term for substances produced by a volcanic eruption, is meant to appeal to a geographically wider audience. So is the location of Colón’s silvery public sculpture, which is half spire, half surfboard. For the next eight months, it will stand in downtown D.C. near the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and I Street NW.

The artist’s parabolic monoliths are tapered columns that evoke bullets, fuselages and the tusks of cyber-mastodons. When struck by sunlight, the pillars’ glossy skins refract a full rainbow of metallic hues. The monuments represent the less organic — or more masculine — aspect of Colón’s art.

That’s a distinction the sculptor explicitly makes. Her work “expands and deconstructs” the “traditionally White male-dominated practice of minimalism,” she says in a video tour of the exhibition available on Tephra’s website.

Most of Colón’s sculptures at Tephra are light-activated wall pieces made of blow-molded optical acrylics. They contain rounded cores that appear to be liquid and glowing, and whose colors seem to change as the viewer’s vantage point does. The illusion relies on the prismatic effects of ambient light on the layered plastic, not on pigment or internal illumination. In what looks to be a light show, none of the objects is plugged in.

Whether these sculptures are seen as jewels or seed pods, they could be typed as feminine, as Colón acknowledges. But she also cites the influence of a childhood in Puerto Rico amid tropical rainforests. Those provide the organic soil in which her futuristic style is rooted.

Where 1960s minimalism defied interpretation, Colón is willing to offer multiple possible meanings. She says one of her subjects is nothing less than “the physical laws of the universe,” a remark underscored by her list of the ingredients of a green-gold-brown parabolic monolith: “Aurora particles, stardust, cosmic radiation, intergalactic matter, ionic waves, organic carbamate, gravity and time.” For anyone who peers into the nucleus of a Colón sculpture, wondering what else is in there that can’t quite be perceived, the sculptor has a bold answer: everything.

Gisela Colón: Quantum Shift Through Aug. 7 at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art, 12001 Market St., Reston. Open by appointment.

Gisela Colón: Parabolic Monolith Iridium Through Feb. 13 at James Monroe Park, Pennsylvania Avenue and I Street NW.

Maliza Kiasuwa

Constructed from fabric, paper, found objects and personal items, Maliza Kiasuwa’s earthy collages evoke the region where she lives: Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Yet the assemblages in the artist’s Morton Fine Art show, “The Pride of Origins,” are made only partly of stuff from nearby. She uses handmade paper from Japan, notably in a 3-D piece that resembles a deconstructed kimono and an intentionally rumpled quilt that also incorporates squares cut from plastic bags that washed up on a local lake shore. “I like to blend materials which don’t belong together,” her statement notes.

Kiasuwa is of both African and European ancestry, and such pieces as “Incomplete 3” suggest that she takes inspiration from Picasso and Braque as well as her surroundings. Her most unusual materials are lengths of shed snake skin, sometimes matched with clumps of frayed, burlap-like cloth that resembles human hair. Most personal are photographs of the artist, usually submerged into the composition as if to suggest that she is part of, not apart from, the ingredients she finds and mingles.

Strikingly, the self-portrait half-buried in “Common History 3” is cut in two, and the half on the right-hand side is upside down. This might represent a fragmented self, but the image seems powerful rather than damaged. The split face appears capable of seeing up and down, or forward and backward, at the same time.

Maliza Kiasuwa: The Pride of Origins Through June 30 at Morton Fine Art, 52 O St. NW, No. 302.

Shan Wallace

Camera in hand, Shan Wallace scouts her native Baltimore for emblematic images: dancers, a mouthful of gold teeth, a child in a boxing ring who’s outfitted in equipment that looks a little too big. Such pictures constitute about half of “Derivatives, Memory and the Mundane,” Wallace’s show at the Mehari Sequar Gallery. They’re crisp and impeccably composed, but they aren’t enough to embody everything Wallace wants to express. So she also slices some of her archival photos, and pieces the shards into fanciful, cartoonish collages.

Both sets of artworks chronicle “the timeless nature of Black life,” as gallery manager Chioma Agbaraji puts it in the show’s catalogue. The straightforward photos are mostly in stark black-and-white and free of text; they offer no commentary on the scenes they capture. The collages mix color and monochrome elements and playfully ignore real-world proportion and perspective; they highlight signs and book covers, from “fresh! hog jaws & chitterlings” to an edition of the Bible.

Wallace’s two modes depict the same turf, but have very different vibes. The documentary photos are more elegant, although some of their subjects are unsurprising. The collages are less graceful, but more freewheeling. Some viewers will likely prefer one over the other, but perhaps the artist needs both to record sufficiently her hometown’s beat.

Shan Wallace: Derivatives, Memory and the Mundane Through June 30 at Mehari Sequar Gallery, 1402 H St. NE.

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