Storytelling was blackballed from visual art by the 20th-century avant-garde, but it’s been creeping back in. Although the old narratives haven’t returned, today’s artists are keen to recount lesser-known tales, or recombine familiar archetypes in unexpected ways. Both things happen in “Small Stories,” an intriguing show of precise, but not exactly realistic, paintings at McLean Project for the Arts.
Nora Sturges, Gregory Ferrand and Matthew Mann all use styles derived more from illustrations than Renaissance canvases. Their work is cartoonish but impeccably detailed, representational yet eccentric. Sturges’s little pictures are blankly surreal, depicting vacant landscapes in American suburbia as well as what appear to be Old World deserts. Rendered in muted earth or snow-country tones, the paintings often fix on institutional buildings and mass-produced objects, including parking garages and precast-concrete barriers. The eerie “Tank” focuses on what seems to be a large shipping container, but the formal way it’s positioned suggests a sort of temple. Perhaps that’s how future anthropologists will see such now-commonplace places and things.
Ferrand’s paintings, which include a series of portraits, conjure the look of old Hollywood. The women have neatly bobbed hair and the men wear suits and ties — even when they’re running toward an airplane in one of the show’s most dramatic works, the red-tinted “Explosion! If only they knew what they know now.” Whether dream, hallucination or disaster-movie frame, the scene teasingly reveals that Ferrand knows what time it is: The plane in the background is a vintage propeller-driven model, but the woman at the center of the composition is clutching both a small dog and a smartphone.
Although his style is not classical, Mann flaunts his familiarity with Old Masters. Many of his pictures emphasize the intricate folds of flowing drapery, whose depiction is a hallmark of traditional painting. He partially paints over prints of famous artworks, and he remakes Fragonard’s “The Reader” with the young woman’s face replaced by a blue grebe’s (among other alterations). Mann’s magnum opus here is “Passion of St. George,” whose image stretches across four canvases of different shapes and sizes. The saint doesn’t appear, but there is a “Dear George” letter from the princess: She has run off with the dragon. That’s not how the fable used to go, of course, but the puckish rewrite is one way “Small Stories” justifies telling tales.
Rosemary Luckett, whose “Altered Terrain” is displayed along the ramp leading to the arts center’s main gallery, also takes a playful approach, but with serious intent. The collaged drawings depict a world where technology threatens everything that lives — even those creatures who designed and built the SUVs, bulldozers and industrial derricks that are among the show’s motifs. Despite ominous imagery, the tone isn’t grim. The artist is partial to rubber ducks, and she builds a forest from tree-shaped air fresheners and shows a frog surrounded by microphones, ready to deliver the message of these works: What Luckett calls the “web of life” is dangerously frayed. After walking to the McLean Project for the Arts from the closest Metrobus stop, count the SUVs in the parking lot.
On view through March 2 at McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean; 703-790-1953; www.mpaart.org.
One of the world’s most specialized neighborhoods, New Delhi’s Kathputli Colony, was home to acrobats, illusionists and other street performers when Joshua Cogan began photographing it. The area is being redeveloped, which is probably the final assault on a subculture that was already vanishing. Cogan is part of a team making a documentary about the district and its culture, “Tomorrow We Disappear.” Under the same title, his evocative large-format images of Kathputli are on exhibit at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue.
Kathputli’s luminaries include the last known performer of the Indian rope trick, who hasn’t taught the act to his descendants, and an elderly puppeteer whose art survives off the street, in a nonprofit venue. Among the younger residents are a 16-year-old acrobat whose parents began stretching her limbs when she was 3, as well as two costumed monkeys.(One is admiring the get-up in a hand mirror.) Such exotic characters aren’t the photos’ only virtue, however. Cogan expertly frames the neighborhood’s tight, shadowy alleys. He uses long exposures both to express motion, as in a shot in which a veteran magician’s dove becomes a flurry of white, and to capture the warm light in such scenes as a woman cooking in a tiny room, illuminated by only the open fire. No doubt the documentary will explain more about these people, but the photos provide a sense of place that’s unlikely to be bettered.
On view through Thursday at 6th & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org.
As European powers subjugated the Caribbean isles, both natives and escaped African slaves took refuge in the hills, where they allied and intermarried. “Honoring Los Antepasados,” at Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center, refers to these peoples in Spanish: “Antepasados” means ancestors. But most of the art on display is rooted in a former British colony, Jamaica. There, the Maroons (from “cimarron,” Spanish for runaway) mounted the Western Hemisphere’s first successful challenge to Britain’s empire. (It signed a peace treaty with the Maroons decades before tea splashed into Boston Harbor.) Maroon culture draws heavily on West Africa, but also on the indigenous Taino, whose language is the source of such words as canoe, potato and barbecue.
There’s another English noun that, unsurprisingly, derives from Taino: hurricane. A personification of the swirling storm is one of several large, mostly wooden pieces by Michael Auld, a Jamaican-bred D.C. artist. Auld combines found and tooled pieces in constructions that represent mythic figures from the melded Ashanti and Taino traditions. These gods and tricksters are earthy and rough-edged, yet deftly assembled. The exhibition also includes a few pre-Columbian artifacts, some Auld silk-screens and paintings by Eglon Daley, another Jamaica-born Washingtonian. Where Auld depicts the fantastic, Daley is more attuned to the everyday. But the painter’s use of blocks of bright color gives his work — whether depicting scenes from Kingston or our town — a sunniness that seems as fundamentally Caribbean as Auld’s circling hurricane man.
On view through Thursday at Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center, 2112 R St. NW; 202-483-2777; www.fondodelsol.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.