Before the principle of “art for art’s sake” took hold, skilled craftsmen hedged their bets by inserting materials of great value into their work: Gold and jewels ensured that art objects had certifiable worth. These days, only pranksters such as Damien Hirst do that; the $24 million, diamond-encrusted skull he unveiled in 2007 mocks art-world excess even as it trades on it.
The exhibition at the Greater Reston Arts Center evokes Hirst’s skull but only by stark contrast. Leah Frankel, Suzi Fox and David Meyer’s art is made from the plainest possible stuff: Salt, flour, paper, wood, tape and plaster are among the ingredients. The artworks are not innately valuable objects but ideas given fleeting form.
Officially, the three artists are having individual shows. But the work is closely aligned and not just in its reliance on humble materials. Without guidance, it would be hard to guess that one artist (Frankel) constructed the salt blocks stacked in the gallery’s windows, while another (Meyer) made the nearby arrangement of flour whose neat contours suggest a topographic map or, perhaps, a circuit board. Mutability is the point, or one of the points. Meyer’s floury “Plain Sight” (part of a show called “Distorted”) had already begun to scatter last week, and Frankel’s “Salt Blocks” (one of two pieces in “Light and Dense”) are eroded in the center, allowing sunlight to penetrate and emphasize their porousness.
In its own mini-gallery, Fox’s “Extensions of the Hand” is somewhat more personal. “Profile” is, in part, a strip of plaster railing whose shape derives from a person’s profile. (The artist’s? Her statement doesn’t say, but it does allow that the display has “autobiographical elements.”) It’s paired with a trowel into which the same profile has been cut, as a way of celebrating the device as well as its product. Some of Fox’s pieces are well-used tools, hung on the wall. Others transform themselves: “Scotch Blue” turns a roll of tape into a nest of sticky spirals, while “Strait — Line II” shows how blue cotton yarn can be wound into an oversize hat — or decay into a dusty outline.
These three overlapping shows are modest in size as well as ingredients, but together they demonstrate a sort of grand bargain with conceptual art. Fox writes of her interest in “process as a way to develop ideas”; Meyer says that his art “only becomes real when we believe in it, like a ghost.” In other words, the existence of these objects is less important than the concepts they express. Yet the work is painstakingly made. Frankel crafts her blocks by packing salt around ice, which creates the central voids as it melts. Meyer hangs ribbons on metal frames and punches patterns in white fabric, giving form to emptiness and emptiness to form. There are no jewels or precious metals here, but, in rejecting them, Frankel, Fox and Meyer have not rejected craftsmanship.
It would be easy to overinterpret Milena Spasic’s impressionist canvases. There’s one in which an array of loose gray brush strokes in the foreground suggests gravestones, and another whose black and reddish-brown palette evokes disorder and devastation. Neither painting explicitly depicts violence or its aftermath, but their titles slightly tip the balance: The two are called, respectively, “Remnants of Kosovo” and “Kosovo Field.”
A Washington resident and Kosovo native, Spasic does not paint the late ’90s conflict itself: “Directly depicting the horrors of war seemed too straightforward and too big of a conceptual departure for me,” she writes. But the oils and acrylics in her “Kosovo Series” seem somber and haunted, with muted earth tones and a ghostly quality. “The Family,” for example, shows an adult and three children whose bodies are solid but whose faces are rendered wispily.
One reason for this intangibility is simply Spasic’s desire to give her canvases a universal quality. The exhibition is rooted in personal experience: It includes five small photographs Spasic made while visiting her rural home region as well as two piles of beans harvested there in 1997. But the sense of loss the painter’s work summons could apply to any vanished world, whether it was annihilated by time or war or simply a person’s departure. To the expatriate, everyone in the old country is, in a sense, a phantom.
When artist Mike Weber relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, he didn’t leave all his Washington iconography behind. The painter-collagist draws on photos of abandoned houses that recall his rural Missouri childhood, but the work in his new show, “Homestead” at Long View Gallery, includes images of such Founding Fathers as Washington, Adams and Hamilton, and one piece incorporates the red stars and bars of the District flag.
In deserted old homes, Weber writes, he found areas that “were dark, stained and rich in texture and color that evolved, darkened and aged over centuries.” He evokes this process by combining vintage photographs, often twinned or tripled in some way, with dripped and splotched paint and blocks of text. The contrast between precise image and loose rendering suggests the 1950s work of pop artist Jasper Johns, although Weber gives his work a sleek finish that feels entirely contemporary. The past might be unruly, but Weber’s often resin-glazed mixed-media pieces are meticulously composed.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Feb. 17 at Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Reston, 703-471-9242; www.restonarts.org.
on view through Feb. 11 at Washington Studio School, 2129 S St. NW; 202-234-3030; www.washingtonstudioschool.com.
on view through Feb. 19 at Long View Gallery, 1234 Ninth St. NW; 202-232-4788; www.longviewgallery.com