Painterly yet precise, Joseph Cortina’s pictures indicate a substantial commitment to his art. Yet there are hints of a second, separate vocation in his show at the McLean Project for the Arts. The first clue is the exhibition’s title, “Vertical Internal,” which refers to the spaces between the scan lines in an analog television signal. Another is Cortina’s flair for graphic design, demonstrated by the way that many of his compositions retain their basic coherence even in the thumbnail reproductions on the show’s price list.

The artist’s online bio divulges that he’s the founder, creative director and namesake of Cortina Productions, a McLean, Va., company that produces films, special effects and interactive experiences for the likes of NBC Sports and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The skills developed in that job surely abetted the show’s two striking video pieces, in which animated moving shapes sometimes cohere into silhouetted human figures. These appear to dance across transparent displays — and into such canvases as “Bluewalker,” whose shapes are less anthropomorphic but do suggest bodies in motion.

In the paintings that compose the bulk of the show, Cortina abstractly yet carefully contrasts colors and forms. Most often, he applies pigment thickly, typically in spiraling allover patterns, and then overlays simple motifs in what appear to be two distinct colors. This might seem a limited strategy, but the artist devises many fruitful variations. And closer inspection reveals that some pictures employ multiple hues, whether heathered into the dominant ones or as highlights, such as the green crests atop the waves of the seemingly all-black “What About It?”

Usually it’s color that provides the essential tension, but some pictures rely on divergent texture, and a few juxtapose both. A pair of dark blue squares differ in both shade and surface from the rest of “Nicki,” and a thickly impastoed black pillar roughly bisects “Or Was It Something Different?” That interruption is one of many strong vertical elements in these paintings, but this one is scored with horizontal incisions that suggest the flickering lines that inspired the show’s title — and recall Cortina’s other career.

Although Shanthi Chandrasekar’s style draws from a wider range of influences and inspirations than Cortina’s, the two artists’ work is quite compatible. The Indian-born Maryland painter’s “Beginningless Endless,” also at the McLean venue, features elaborate patterns and intricate layers. Like the ancient philosophers whose ideas of the universe predicted later discoveries, Chandrasekar expresses both mystical and scientific verities. Her titles encompass such terms as “chakra” as well as “fractal,” and this selection includes a hanging 3-D installation previously seen at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Md.

The literal meaning of “chakra” is “wheel,” and Chandrasekar’s striking chakra paintings, each keyed to a single color, revolve around a central axis. More common, though, are pictures whose multilevel patterns sprawl every which way, evoking anything from starry skies and microscopic cells to the tapestries woven by her ancestors. Frequently, the top level is a dotted white filigree that, in a sense, stitches the whole together. In Chandrasekar’s paintings, chaos and order don’t merely coexist but actually harmonize.

Joseph Cortina: Vertical Interval and Shanthi Chandrasekar: Beginningless Endless Through Feb. 20 at McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. Open by appointment.

Michael Spears

Like Joseph Cortina, Michael Spears paints abstracts that convey a strong sense of motion. The pictures in the Athenaeum’s “The Sight of Rhythm and Melody” translate jazz, soul and gospel into what the Laurel, Md.-based African American artist calls “visual music.” His mixed-media pictures combine painting, drawing and collage, and dispatch swirling free gestures across regions of intense color. These hues, often rich and dark, evoke shadowy interiors and midnight skies.

The most immersive canvases are twinned fantasias in deep reds and purples, one of which is punctuated by whirls of white. Yet most of Spears’s pictures have a broader palette, and several incorporate curved pieces of what appears to be paper printed with photo-derived black-and-white designs. The artist’s stated inspirations — including the Black Lives Matter movement and the influence of religion on classic rhythm and blues — aren’t made visible, but the passions they summon are palpable. Spears achieves in visual form what he says music gives him: “emotional grandness.”

Michael Spears: The Sight of Rhythm and Melody Through Feb. 21 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria.

Liminal Space

The sky and the street are two of the places grouped as “Liminal Space” in the debut show at Formerly Was, the new incarnation of Bethesda’s WAS Gallery. (The title refers to a transitional state that can be physical, psychological or even metaphysical, as in Tibetan Buddhism’s term for the period between death and rebirth.) All but one of the five contributors are photographers, some of whose pictures are organized into visual essays. The most atmospheric of these arrays feature Baltimore scenes by E. Brady Robinson, whose upward-gazing camera often lands on clouds, and uncanny nocturnes by Elena Volkova, who views light and shadow through a lens darkly.

The artists, all from the Washington-Baltimore region, sometimes depict recognizable locations and timely events or items. There are multiple images of pandemic gear such as gloves and masks, rendered objectively by Rodney Choice and impressionistically by Jill Fannon. Choice portrays a man in a D.C. statehood mask; Fannon glimpses someone through a full-face shield, just one of many distancing devices in her evocatively soft-focused photos.

Choice’s posed portraits are complemented by a quartet of impromptu shots of protesters at odds with police officers. These pictures are the closest in spirit to Melvin Nesbitt Jr.’s contributions — two food-themed collaged pictures. The representational assemblages appear light-hearted, but their cut-and-pasted scraps include text about chronic hunger. That subject, like the conflict of Choice’s street scenes, is tangible and immediate. More characteristic of the show, however, are views of liminal spaces, mysterious and unresolved.

Liminal Space Through Feb. 27 at Formerly Was, 4936 Wisconsin Ave. NW.