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In the galleries: Tracing a generational progression in abstract art

Paintings by Leon Berkowitz, a Washington color-field painter, use vibrant colors that capture light in a distinct way. (Hemphill Artworks)
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The three solo shows at Hemphill Artworks don’t add up to an overview of the evolution of abstract painting, and aren’t meant to. Still, the progression from Leon Berkowitz’s luminous austerity to Steven Cushner’s totemic imagery to E.E. Ikeler’s mixed-media intricacy does demonstrate intriguing generational shifts. Over a half-century of this trio’s nonrepresentational art, things get funkier and funkier.

Berkowitz (1915-1987) was a Washington color-field painter whose style is similar in general, but not in specifics, to that of other local colorists. Where Morris Louis and kindred D.C. artists stained unprimed canvas with diluted acrylic pigments, Berkowitz laid oil-paint glazes over a surface prepared with white gesso to add brightness. In his mature pictures, areas of borderless color appear to flow, blend and gleam.

The five large paintings in this selection, four from the 1970s and one from 1986, center on radiant reds and oranges, framed by blues and purples. The effect is to conjure splendid dawns, without depicting any literal aspect of sun or sky. Berkowitz wasn’t a traditional illusionist, but he captured light in a way that makes it seem entirely real.

Cushner (born 1954) is known principally as a painter, but his Hemphill show, the smallest of the three, consists of prints. These woodcuts are far from unprecedented, though, since they employ curving motifs like the ones the artist has long daubed on canvas. The abstract yet seemingly organic forms dovetail, interlock and sometimes appear to tie themselves into knots. The bending, roughly parallel lines produce a sense of motion, as does the mottled blue watercolor added to “Splash,” the only hand-finished print. The artist achieves a similar effect without painting in “Round and Round,” in which Easter-egg hues underlie an oval inscribed with fingerprint-like whorls. When wielding a brush, Cushner often allows the pigment to drip. Such improvisation is impossible when carving wood, and yet these prints reproduce his trademark spontaneity.

Although they’re fundamentally of a piece, Ikeler’s collage-paintings are crafted from many diverse ingredients, not all of them included in each artwork. The Brooklyn artist (born 1986) pits circles against grids and incorporates text and such 3-D elements as tiles and fabric nets. Fixed to aluminum panels, painted with metallic pigments and topped with glistening resin, the pictures can appear high-tech or homey, often at the same time. There’s even a sun-like piece that complements the Berkowitz canvases in the adjacent room.

Straight lines don’t feature in Ikeler’s work, since those grids are made of netting that warps and breaks as it stretches across the panels. The occasional phrases, mostly derived from truisms, are both a contrast to the abstract images and an acknowledgment of human communication breakdowns. (The artist calls her wordier pictures “fake protest signs.”) If Berkowitz’s and Cushner’s art seeks some sort of essence, Ikeler’s finds clarity in clutter. And yet the best of her paintings are sufficiently balanced to give their quilt-like compositions a powerful focus.

E.E. Ikeler; Steven Cushner; and Leon Berkowitz Through March 20 at Hemphill Artworks, 434 K St. NW. Open by appointment.

Wachtel & White

Two separate shows that overlap in places, Julia Wachtel and Wendy White’s “Airlok or Gazing Into the Void” share a bit of technique and a lot of temperament. The New York artists have filled Von Ammon Co. with images that are appropriated (Wachtel prefers to say “reclaimed”) from the Internet and deployed to convey anxiety and upset.

White begins with simple visual icons that can represent emotions or simply the weather, among them hearts, rainbows, clouds and rain (or tear) drops. She fabricates them as huge 3-D (but still essentially flat) shapes, made of steel or aluminum or outlined in space by white LEDs shaped like neon tubes. Three sets of these mostly black emblems are grouped in mobiles that hang off-kilter and close to the floor, so their presence is intrusive. White also suspends a lone heart, whose chunky edges reveal its pixel-built origins, in front of White’s wall painting of a damaged wall. This collaboration is the show’s title piece.

Aside from the simulated wall, Wachtel’s contributions are five paintings of the same basic image: a man who’s inserted his head into a hole. She has executed these in the modes of the originals — from cartoon to photograph. All of the men are White, and their reasons for hiding their faces are “denial, shame, fear or self-justification,” according to the gallery’s statement.

The feelings that White’s mobiles evoke are less specific, but the way they hang suggests they’re distress signals of a sort. Both artists take banal, electronic clip art and render it curiously unsettling.

Julia Wachtel and Wendy White: Airlok or Gazing Into the Void Through March 14 at Von Ammon Co., 3330 Cady’s Alley NW.

Maurice E. James Jr.

In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced its first superhero of color, the Black Panther. Five years later, “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” inaugurated the Blaxploitation champion. But where were the Black gladiators, secret agents and space rebels? D.C. artist Maurice E. James Jr. had no choice but to invent them retroactively, stitching together vintage pop-culture remnants into the prints displayed in his 11:Eleven Gallery show, “What If?” The computer-generated collages rewrite the 1960s and ’70s for an all-Black cast.

The artist isn’t rectifying his own history; he grew up collecting comics and other low-cost artifacts in the 1980s and ’90s. He combines his archival knowledge and graphic-arts skills to update “Star Wars,” “Spartacus” and other epic underdog fantasies from before his time. His witty mash-ups imagine Sammy Davis Jr. as 007; introduce James Baldwin to the X-Men; and place feral model/singer Grace Jones on the cover of the boxing magazine the Ring, where she looks entirely at home.

James looks back to 1938 to put a brown-skinned Superman on the cover of the epochal “Action Comics #1.” But most of his raw material is from the years that brought us Playboy, Princess Leia and COINTELPRO — all phenomena the artist references. That’s an era whose strong, sleek graphic style has retained its punch. And if something else was missing, James knows how to interject it.

Maurice E. James Jr.: What If? Through March 21 at 11:Eleven Gallery, 10 Florida Ave. NW.

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