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In the galleries: Humble materials yield extraordinary art

“Clavikot: Sacred Designs” by Petronila Jorge Set of the Quiejel community, part of the Multicolores Collective, evokes a huipil design, the traditional tunics worn in the region for centuries. (Amy Kaslow Gallery)
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Lots of artists work with found objects, but the weavers of Guatemala’s Multicolores Collective employ something unusual: found colors. Vivid blues, reds and yellows gleam from the rugs and story cloths made expressly for Amy Kaslow Gallery’s “Ancestral Colors.” The hues weren’t dyed into the cloth by their makers, women of Mayan ethnicity who live in Guatemala’s impoverished, tumultuous highlands. The fabric comes from secondhand clothing from the Salvation Army, shipped to Guatemala in bales and then transfigured into evocative tableaux.

The collective began with the efforts of Mary Anne Wise of Wisconsin, who began teaching rug-hooking in the Kiche, Kaqchiquel and Tzutujil villages in 2009. The technique is not native to these communities, but the designs draw from ones long used for huipils, the traditional tunics worn in the region since pre-Columbian times. Their motifs are generally decorative, but can include narrative elements. In this show, the stories include the fantastical autobiography of Juana Calel’s “Self Portrait: Happiness,” in which the artist carries her baby through a forest filled with what her statement calls “healthy, happy and thriving animals.”

If this vision of a peaceable kingdom is unusual, nature imagery abounds. Flowers bloom inside diamond-shaped enclosures in Bartola Morales Tol’s “The First Aroma of Spring,” and animals become geometric abstractions in Lidia Pich Chopén’s “Creatures of Nahuala.” The latter forms seem related to Mayan hieroglyphs, which are celebrated in such weavings as Irma Churunel Ajú’s “Reclaiming Our Language.”

While close inspection reveals many themes, visual and cultural, the artworks’ overall impact relies on the canny opposition of earthy and celestial colors. The brightest bird in Ramona Cristina Tumax Tzunún’s aptly titled “Our Brilliance” may once have been someone’s T-shirt.

The Multicolores Collective: Ancestral Colors Through June 15 at Amy Kaslow Gallery, 4300 Fordham Rd. NW.

Howard Mehring

Although he died in 1978, and had stopped painting a decade before that, Washington colorist Howard Mehring is very much viable in local galleries and museums. One of his pictures is in “The Long Sixties,” an exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, and Connersmith has mounted two shows of Mehring paintings in the past six months. The gallery’s “Cutting Edge” punctuates work in familiar styles with a few surprises, notably three pieces that have never been exhibited.

The title refers to pictures Mehring began to make around 1961. He took the gently mottled “allover” canvases he had been painting, cut them into simple shapes and arranged the pieces in symmetrical patterns. The result contrasted soft textures and hard edges, and ultimately prompted the artist to paint geometric compositions with bold, solid colors. These have rarely been seen in Washington, but Connersmith is showing a robust one, a 1964 arrangement of L-shapes in black, red and blue.

Mehring’s cut-and-paste gambit appears more of a transition than a breakthrough, but “Cutting Edge” includes a previously unexhibited work that offers a compelling variation on that technique. The untitled 1962 picture juxtaposes three shapes in dappled color: a midnight-blue central pillar and pink and orange near-triangles on the sides, partly overlapping the blue. No scissors were involved, but the three parts have sharp borders, so the painting pits form vs. texture in the manner of the cut-together paintings. This approach would have been a fruitful one for Mehring to pursue. Instead, it produced a rarity that is this show’s unexpected highlight.

Howard Mehring: Cutting Edge Through June 19 at Connersmith, 1013 O St. NW. Open by appointment.

Foon Sham

In the sculptures he’s made for local streets and parks, Foon Sham assembles blocks or shards of wood into structures that can be as towering as the trees that yielded their parts. A fine example of the Macau-born local artist’s larger work is in North Arlington’s Oakland Park, about a five-minute walk from Fred Schnider Gallery, now home to Sham’s “UnderExposed.” Some of the indoor-size pieces at the venue — notably “Exterior,” a sort of self-contained canyon — are built in the same way as the public edifices. Others are exercises in deconstruction.

As the show’s title hints, this is a selection of work Sham has not shown in the Washington area. Several pieces resulted from overseas assignments and residencies. A collage-painting features a leaf from Suriname, where Sham went to build an 18-foot-high basket-like sculpture from local wood. A painting of a window evokes southern France, site of an arts center where Sham sojourned, yielding a 2019 show at Gallery Neptune & Brown.

Several pieces that combine wood with metal were made at the University of Maryland, where Sham teaches. The artist poured molten iron or aluminum into wooden forms that were scorched and largely destroyed in the process. Less violent are pencil drawings that extrapolate patterns from wood chips at their center, symbolically portraying the lumber from which the scraps came. Such drawings are, Sham recently told a visitor to the show, “my vision of the past.”

Foon Sham: UnderExposed Through June 18 at Fred Schnider Gallery, 888 N. Quincy St., Arlington. Open by appointment.

Joseph Keiffer

The California coast, rural France and street scenes from Paris and New York are among the subjects of the realistic oils by Joseph Keiffer at Gallery Neptune & Brown. The geographic range explains why the show is called “Wanderlust,” even if that title seems a little too fevered for these serene pictures. More apt might be the name of a picture of a glimmering porch that overlooks a lustrous sea: “Contemplation.”

Keiffer doesn’t simply paint immaculately executed postcard scenes. He can be playful, in both subject and form. One Parisian building looks nondescript, but a sign reveals it’s the home of a venerable art school. The artist likes to paint shiny enamel cups, pots and pitchers, which he stacks in teetering columns for still lifes. The shrewd color contrasts of pictures such as “French Radishes,” which places the red orbs in a blue bowl on a scarlet tablecloth, continue subtly in the landscapes. The landscapes tend to be largely green and blue, but are accented by hot-hued items such as “September’s” red light and pitcher in the shape and color of an orange. The vistas are impressive, but the painter’s eye is paramount.

Joseph Keiffer: Wanderlust Through June 12 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW.