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In the galleries: A heightened homage to trees and what they can teach us

“Temple,” left, and “Twins” are part of Patricia Underwood’s exhibit "Trees/Humans: Life in the Balance." (Athenaeum)
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An artist who seeks to pay proper tribute to trees must have skill, imagination and a measure of audacity. Also useful are high ceilings.

All those things are on offer at the Athenaeum, where Patricia Underwood has mounted the most towering of four current shows that involve trees, forests or wood. The Northern Virginia printmaker-painter’s “Trees/Humans: Life in the Balance” carries an earnest message, as its title indicates. But Underwood’s artworks also are beautiful, exuberant and monumental. The two tallest pieces are 15-foot ceiling-scrapers.

The selection includes some drawings, but most of the entries are mixed-media pictures that began as photographs of what Underwood’s statement calls “ancient trees.” The photos are the basis for silk-screen and linocut prints to which the artist adds tints and painted designs. The finished pieces range in viewpoint from close up to wide angle, and in style from realistic to very nearly psychedelic. They’re mounted on wood panels, some rectangular and others cut to the shapes of the trunks and branches they depict.

Among the subjects are such arboreal details as “Birch Bark” and “Giant Sequoia Needles,” rendered at enlarged sizes, as well as tree stumps and downed trunks. The signature piece, presented in multiple versions, is “Wailing.” It portrays a gnarled tree overlaid with multicolored squiggles that might recall balloons, or some sort of calligraphy.

Does the artist know what the venerable tree is trying to say? After decrying mankind’s greed and obliviousness, her statement extols forests as collectives whose “collaborative wisdom is something we humans might learn from and perhaps be saved by.” So perhaps the show’s most germane aspect is not the towering scale of its largest pieces, but its collaboration of techniques. Underwood mingles photography, printmaking, painting and sculpture into an artistic ecosystem.

Patricia Underwood: Trees/Humans: Life in the Balance Through May 16 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria.

Stephanie Garon

A pine forest is a tranquil haven, its ambient sounds muffled by a bed of fallen needles. Stephanie Garon’s “Breaking Ground” provides no trees, imagined or real, but it does carpet most of Honfleur Gallery’s floor with Loblolly pine needles. They pad the calming walk to the far wall, where a video projection flickers with the faintest movement (and to the accompaniment of Clint Sleeper’s mostly faint music). The installation is titled “Wait,” an apparent plea for patience.

That is a rare human virtue, as the Maryland artist suggests with the show’s four other pieces, minimalist sculptures that juxtapose sleek steel with decaying organic substances. Two large burdock leaves dangle over a shallow pool of water inside a metal circle, and a pair of steel armatures hold, respectively, clumps of dry grass and a soil core from the Patuxent River. The contrasting materials invoke the clash of nature and technology, as well as the investigation of our surroundings by science. (Garon was a scientist before turning to art.)

The odd couplings of “Breaking Ground” are striking formally, but also spotlight the planet’s vulnerability. Garon’s statement calls her creations “ecologically motivated interventions.” While luxuriating in the simulated pine barren, the visitor might ponder how to preserve real ones.

Stephanie Garon: Breaking Ground Through May 22 at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Road SE. Open by appointment.

Carol Brown Goldberg

Included among Carol Brown Goldberg’s pictures at Addison/Ripley Gallery are a few examples of her impressionistic yet intricate renderings of flowering jungles, thick with the outlined shapes of vines and blossoms. But most of the paintings are more recent ones that stem from a temporary circumstance that explains the show’s title: “ . . . On the Other Hand” refers to the technique the Chevy Chase, Md., artist developed while her dominant arm was healing in a cast.

The resulting style begins with spontaneous abstract gestures in bold-hued (and often thick) pigment, often splashed on 3-D squares of canvas or paper that can’t entirely contain the liquid-looking dribbles. Black lines drawn in ink fill the areas between the painted motifs, and are clearly subsidiary to them. The densely interlocking doodles are reminiscent of the sinuous organic figures in the rainforest scenes; both sorts of pictures are colorful and packed with detail.

Goldberg has previously made both abstract and figurative art, and sometimes combined the two. “ . . . On the Other Hand” allows the painter to demonstrate her affinity with early 20th-century European abstraction. That may be an accident, but it’s not an entirely unlucky one.

Carol Brown Goldberg: . . . On the Other Hand Through May 22 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Open by appointment.

Micheline Klagsbrun

In Micheline Klagsbrun’s found-object assemblages, a slab of ragged lumber can represent a ship, or a wave that lifts such a craft above the ocean surface. Toy ships, scrap metal, fossilized wood, spiraling vines and weathered antlers are among the other castaway objects the D.C. artist combines into the evocative tableaux of “Night Boats,” her Studio Gallery show.

Klagsbrun is known for paintings that flowingly interpret classical myths in which women transfigure into trees or flowers. Her latest project turns on a more recent, and more personal, tale of transition. “Night Boats” was inspired by the discovery of a ship’s log with details of her father’s 1941 voyage from Lisbon to Glasgow. The refugee took a roundabout journey across Europe from Poland to asylum. The last leg was on a ship that was sunk by a German U-boat on its very next crossing.

The family remembrance of escape and exile, which occurred almost exactly 80 years ago, mirrors the experiences of today’s refugees from Syria, Myanmar and so many other places. It also alludes to “the journey of the soul through the Underworld,” notes the London-born artist’s statement in another nod to Greco-Roman lore. But the repurposing of battered materials also is a testament to rebirth, as are the live plants incorporated into the night-boat construction on display in the gallery’s back garden. Klagsbrun’s assemblages are motley and ramshackle, and yet vital.

Micheline Klagsbrun: Night Boats Through May 22 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St NW.

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