Antiquity beckons in the work of Washington sculptor Bill Mould, whose ceramics evoke leather, bronze, parchment and other, often-weathered substances. If the signs from the past are sometimes hard to read, that’s only to be expected from an exhibition that includes one piece engraved in Linear B, a Mycenaean Greek syllabary that dates to the 15th century BC — and which hasn’t been entirely deciphered. Mould’s Touchstone Gallery show, “Spirit and Enigma,” is well furnished with the latter.
A former professor of modern European languages, Mould is drawn to words. But the tongues incorporated into his art are mostly ones he doesn’t know, such as Choctaw or ancient Greek, or ones that no one fully understands, including Linear B and ancient Tibetan. He writes that “I see life as a palimpsest,” which literally means a document from which the original words have been scraped and replaced with new ones. Metaphorically, it suggests the previous lives, at best half understood, that underlie our own.
The artist doesn’t begin with a particular message in mind, and his titles can be misleading. The poetry of “Sapphic Fragment,” for example, is not from Sappho. But sometimes an image found by accident can be powerfully evocative. His series of six inquisitors, including the infamous Torquemada, began with a chance discovery of a cruciform shape under paper. This inspired sculptures that seem to show both a face and a cross, cloaked under fabric. Crafted in dark shades, these hidden countenances are suitably ominous.
Not all of Mould’s work is so severe; the show includes pieces that are more playful or optimistic. These include “Pandora’s Cup,” in which the literature of Homer, Euripides and Sophocles spirals into a cup, balancing the ills unleashed from the infamous box.
“Spirit and Enigma” wears such themes lightly, in part because of the suppleness of the shaped clay. It’s unusually thin, so it’s easily accepted as being fabric or other foldable substances. (The artist estimates that he loses 40 to 45 percent of his work because it’s so fragile.) Familiarity with, or interest in, ancient languages is not necessary to appreciate the silky curves of Mould’s ceramics.
The most elaborate piece in Rex Weil’s “Ripography: Works with Paper” pins hundreds of vertical shreds to the wall of the D.C. Arts Center’s gallery. The other works are simpler, but all cut (or rather, torn) from the same cloth (that is, paper). The individual tatters are often too small for their sources to be identified, but the repurposed images depict clothing, appliances, houses, labels, food and pets. Clearly, these are scraps from catalogues and other shop-till-you-drop literature.
Occasionally, the District artist will provide a stronger cue. “Ripography (tiffany chains)” is a cluster of paper-loop bracelets derived from a catalogue meant to sell jewelry made of more expensive materials. The show’s commentary on upscale consumer culture is mostly indirect, however. Anything but excessive, most of the collages consist of just a few small bits of colored paper, arranged simply on white space framed by black expanses. Rather than echo the blare of 1960s pop art, these modest rip-ups suggest some of the gentler works of the cubist era. Weil braved the hubbub of the luxury-goods marketplace only to come out the other side with art that’s unusually quiet. Think of “Ripography” as a Zen garden of earthly delights.
The devices in “Glittering Machines” don’t exactly gleam. But they do spin, gesture, pulse or even play a metallic tattoo. Paul Myoda’s contraptions, on display at Project 4 Gallery, are sculpture for the nonstop-entertainment age. They’re constructed from such high-tech ingredients as aluminum, clear acrylic, LEDs, microprocessors and ultrasonic sensors. They’re quite entertaining, even if kind of limited when compared with an iPad or a PlayStation.
An assistant professor at Brown University, Myoda is the co-creator of “Tribute in Light,” which projected two beacons into the Manhattan airspace formerly occupied by the World Trade Center. This show is considerably less somber. Although the gallery’s light level is reduced, that’s so the LEDs will be more visible, especially in pieces such as “Whip,” a whirling chandelier that casts dancing patterns of refracted light. “Ratchet,” whose plastic gears strike a metal star burst, teeters between nonessential machinery and automatic percussion. “Chime,” which hits a single note, suggests a doorbell that pranksters have rigged to clang endlessly.
Myoda isn’t just interested in wayward technology, though. Inspired by bioluminescent insects and other creatures, the artist builds machines that react to people’s presence and movement. These robotic gizmos are a long way from artificial intelligence, but they have enough moves to get human viewers thinking.
The former head conservator at the National Gallery of Art as well as a teacher and prolific painter, Ross Merrill was a beloved figure in the local art scene. But Merrill, who died in December 2010, didn’t do the sort of work that stirs the passions of trend-conscious critics. The oils in “Remembering Ross Merrill,” at American Painting Fine Art, are peaceful landscapes, rendered realistically. There’s a hint of impressionism in the looser brush strokes but not a trace of any more recent-ism.
Raised in Texas, Merrill brought to the Mid-Atlantic an affinity for gently rolling terrain and open skies. A favored location to set up his easel was Sycamore Point on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His canvases — usually mounted on panels so they’ll age better — depict quiet moments without much visual drama. (The gallery also is showing pictures made at a “paint-out” in Merrill’s memory, many of which feature darker clouds and brighter reflections.) This selection of Merrill’s paintings ranges from the conventionally detailed “Conway River, Fall Afternoon” to the looser and more distinctive “First of Fall.” One of the best is “Riverside Sycamore,” the only watercolor; it shows that Merrill’s quick hand was well suited to more liquid pigments than his customary oils.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through April 29 at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW; 202-347-2787; www.touchstonegallery.com .
on view through April 29 at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW; 202-462-7833; www.dcartscenter.org .
on view through April 28 at Project 4 Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, 3rd floor; 202-232-4340; www.project4gallery.com .
on view through April 28 at American Painting Fine Art, 5118 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202-244-3244; classicamericanpainting.com.