The yellow canary in the window at Connersmith is cleanly sculpted, rendered by Scottish artist Kenny Hunter with the elementary lines and primary color of a cartoon. Just one thing is little off. The bird is dead.
The juxtaposition of innocent form and ominous subject is one of the things that links Hunter with Welsh-born Julie Roberts, the other artist in “Nothing Lasts Forever.” (Another is that they studied together at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s.) Roberts’s oils and watercolors focus on children, and their neutral, sepia-tinged look suggests both old photographs and young-adult book illustrations. Her “difficult pre-school years [were] occasionally spent in institutional care,” the artist writes, which spurs her to depict kids in orphanages and worse: “Ghetto Boy” wears a yellow, six-point star and has his hands up, as if about to be seized by the Gestapo.
Not all the news in Roberts’s pictures is bad. One of her paintings portrays two boys who have ridden the Kindertransport from Nazi-controlled Europe to safety in Britain. But, of course, the children have left their families behind and in all likelihood will be orphans soon themselves. Other pictures depict swastikas and explosions, all in a world where adults’ menacing handiwork is more evident than their actual presence.
Roberts’s paintings are precisely composed and sometimes feature large voids in the foreground, such as the dirt road in “Orphan Village” or the floor in “Workhouse (Male Ward).” The muted colors are occasionally brightened by bands of sunlight, and a close look reveals thickly textured pigment that belies the simplicity of the images. It turns out that there’s as much tension within Roberts’s style as between that style and her vision of childhood.
Only one of Hunter’s sculptures shows a kid, a full-sized boy holding a rifle that’s almost as tall as he is. The tyke, like most of these pieces, is made from white polyester and acrylic resin, materials that are even more blank than Roberts’s technique. The affinities between the two artists’ works include specific poses; both show figures who are kneeling in prayer. But the fundamental one is the deadpan demeanor with which each depicts life in a coal mine where the canary has already died.
Roberts was born in 1963, after the historical events depicted in her paintings. Judy Jashinsky, however, lived through the period she chronicles in “13 Days + 13 Nights, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis,” her show at Civilian Arts Projects. In fact, a painting of her as a Wisconsin high school freshman is included among the many portraits, which range from Castro, Krushchev and two Kennedys to Bob Dylan and Washington socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was romantically linked to JFK and murdered mysteriously in Georgetown about a year after the American-Soviet showdown. The personal is political indeed.
A realist painter with classical technique, Jashinsky is known for thematic series that can overlap. Her missile crisis exhibition includes “Caribbean Storm,” a large 1992 painting that was originally part of a “Columbus and Isabella” sequence. But most of the pieces here are small and photo-derived, grouped in stylistically linked sets. The portraits that include the artist’s own are in oil on wood, with a lighter palette; pictures apparently modeled on newspaper halftones are in conte, gesso and acrylic and often blue-tinted.
The array also includes phases of the moon during the period, a clock stopped just short of midnight and a witty video collage that’s not for sale because it includes copyrighted material, such as clips from “The Jetsons.” Clearly, most of these pieces mean more in context than they would individually. But some of them might surface in a future show, as Jashinsky continues to extrapolate on historical themes both skillfully and evocatively.
One common attribute of Washington artists is that they’re well-traveled, and not just to the usual places. The paintings in Pat Silbert’s Waverly Street Gallery show, “Earth in Beauty Dressed,” are partially inspired by grand old trees seen in Ireland. With titles derived from William Butler Yeats’s verse, and gold-leaf embellishment to give the impressionist pictures a medieval aspect, the paintings evoke bygone European traditions. But that’s not all.
Silbert has also visited cave temples along the Silk Road in Western China and mixes the foliage of rainy Ireland with Buddhist and desert imagery. The artist flanks her watercolor-like acrylics of trees with dozens of tiny Buddhas, and in one, she surrounds a picture of a stork at a pond with 12 Buddhas interspersed with four small trees. (She also continues the decorative motifs on the sides of the canvases.) The repeated figures are typical of Buddhist art and give an Asian aspect to work dominated by the conventions of Western landscape painting. The most striking pieces, such as “The Wings of Wisdom and Compassion,” find a balance between wet and dry, blue and red, East and West. They transport the viewer to a place only Silbert has seen.
Ukrainian-born Washington photographer Alexander Vasiljev doesn’t just travel the world to make pictures; he also leads occasional photographic tours of several countries with dramatic scenery. One of them is Nepal, which yielded the images in Vasiljev’s current Watergate Gallery show, “In Search of the Windhorse.” The selection is divided between portraits and landscapes, each in a very different style.
Vasiljev’s inspirations include 20th-century American photographers who worked in tonally rich black-and-white. He emulates their style in portraits of Nepalese faces, mostly aged and well weathered. These pictures, which include a wall’s worth of holy people in turbans and face paint, emphasize the crags and valleys of fleshy terrain. In contrast, the show’s large, full-color mountain-scapes are softer, almost paintinglike. The vistas, most with some evidence of human civilization in the foreground, are lofty. But the head shots seem to tell more of Nepal.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Dec. 22 at Connersmith., 1358 Florida Ave. NE; 202-588-8750, www.connersmith.us.com.
on view through Dec. 1 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 7th St. NW; 202-607-3804; www.civilianartprojects.com.
on view through Dec. 1 at Waverly Street Gallery, 4600 East-West Hwy., Bethesda; 301-951-9441; waverlystreetgallery.com.
on view through Tuesday at Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW; 202-338-4488; www.watergategalleryframedesign.com.