Underground comics, like so many of the 1960s counterculture’s anti-institutions, started as a boys club. But the field didn’t stay that way for long. The all-women “It Ain’t Me, Babe” was published in 1970, followed in 1972 by “Wimmen’s Comix,” which persevered for two decades. One of the central figures in this India-ink insurrection was Trina Robbins, whose work is included in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center’s gallery. The retrospective doesn’t cover every aspect of women’s comics, but among the 18 participants are several of the early-’70s prime movers, including Diane Noomin, Sharon Rudahl and Aline Kominsky-Crumb (who married one of Robbins’s macho nemeses, R. Crumb).
The traveling exhibition features mostly American, British and Canadian cartoonists, although there are also a few Israelis. The work tends to be personal and wordy, sometimes emphasizing sincerity over dexterity. But there’s a significant range of attitudes and techniques: The seldom-confessional Robbins is a skilled artist, and a more versatile one than can be demonstrated with a single-page tale. (She’s represented by “Big Sister,” a chronicle of the dubious wisdom imparted by her sibling during their childhood.) Sarah Lightman draws with great detail (and in pencil), while the work of Racheli Rottner, whose sparse dialogue is in Hebrew, is easily understood because she’s such a keen visual storyteller.
For many of these artists, autobiography is not just important but essential. “I reveal parts of myself in graphic novel form because when I don’t, I get really depressed,” writes Ariel Schrag. Narrative becomes self-healing in Noomin’s account of her miscarriages and Laurie Sandell’s telling of her father as “an impostor.” Some of the publications sampled here address larger issues: Sarah Glidden is represented by part of “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days.” But there are no superheroes, extraterrestrials or epic quests. For these cartoonists, family history and self-definition are adventure enough.
Unlike the women of “Graphic Details,” local cartoonist Rafer Roberts depicts visions, fantasies and hallucinations. The comics pages displayed in “Fever Dreams of Organic Machines,” at VisArts Rockville’s Common Ground Gallery, draw on Disney, psychedelia, cheesy sci-fi and Marvel Comics (especially Jack Kirby, the artist who helped create most of the company’s franchise characters during the 1960s). One of Roberts’s recurring characters is Nightmare the Rat, who resembles a demonic version of a certain well-known mouse, and several episodes portray adventures in the Kitty Kat Galaxy, home to “Nekko IX.” (“Neko” is Japanese for “cat.”) There’s also a poster in which the top half of Abraham Lincoln’s head is a squid.
Roberts sometimes uses gray washes and even color, but his work is distinguished by clean lines and strong use of black. It’s meant for print, not gallery walls. So perhaps the best thing about this show is that it offers copies of “The End of the World” issue of Magic Bullet, a semiannual D.C. comics tabloid. There, Nightmare the Rat (and Roberts) rubs whiskers with lots of kindred souls, each awaiting Armageddon, but with varying degrees of dread or amusement.
The galleries that share a rowhouse at 1662 33rd St. NW — Blue Square, Robert Brown and Neptune — have mingled their wares for “Summer Frolic,” a group show that offers an introduction to the strengths of all three. Open by appointment only, the exhibition is heavy on prints of various kinds but also includes paintings and sculpture.
The array features many pieces that were hung on these walls during 2011-12 shows, including prints by David Nash, William Kentridge and Deborah Bell and paper constructions by Oleg Kudryashov.
Scattered among the familiar pieces are two large, striking ones that haven’t been exhibited here recently, both distinguished by puckish politics as well as craft. Mickalene Thomas’s “When Ends Meet” is a 2007 diptych of Oprah Winfrey (on the left) and Condoleezza Rice (on the right); both are screenprints that glitter with the patina of celebrity as well as hand-applied rhinestones (the real thing, not plastic). Even more iconic than Oprah, perhaps, is the subject of Russian artist Leonid Lamm’s 1990-91 “Dollar, Blue,” which depicts a dollar sign on a vivid blue field. The symbol is made of two sets of gleaming gold hammers and sickles; it’s the proletariat’s onetime insignia, remade as bling to symbolize the gangsta politics of post-Soviet Russia.
This year’s edition of Touchstone Gallery’s annual “MiniSolos” survey encompasses 38 artists, so detecting overall themes is unlikely. But some of the more engaging work pairs off nicely. Susanne Kasielke’s mixed-media paintings, abstract but earth-toned and textured, complement the artist Trainor’s photographic close-ups of architectural details in stone and ceramic hues. Denise Graveline’s assemblages of found objects, painted black or ivory or left in natural-wood shades, parallel George Tkabladze’s tabletop monuments, which are sculptural combines of weathered wood and metal.
Most piquant is the contrast between the collages of Deborah Saks and t.r. logan, which offer divergent impressions of femininity. The former’s work, featuring cats and clocks, flowers and butterflies, seems a gentler echo of the latter’s, which evokes the traumas of female adolescence by collating ancient newspaper clippings and magazine ads and hair and makeup tips with discordant images of glamour and motherhood — and frontal lobotomy. There are some moods, apparently, that even the cutest kitten won’t dispel.
Patchwork is the operative mode — and metaphor — in “#myDeanwood: Honoring the Past to Create the Future,” a survey of art chosen to reflect Northeast Washington. There are other media in this small show, but most of the pieces are assemblages. Journalist and artist Esther Iverem makes quilted collages with historical elements, both personal and cultural; she sometimes invokes Oya, the Yoruba spirit of communication with ancestors. Sherry Burton Ways’s dolls are constructed of sticks, fabric, paper and what appears to be human hair; mounted atop strips of patterned fabric, these totemic figures evoke layers of history. Most interesting is Amber Robles-Gordon’s “Matrixes of Transformation” series, which does indeed transform her colorful fabric combinations by photographing them. These 2-D images have a strong sense of depth, but by focusing on details, they offer a more direct way to see Robles-Gordon’s tangled work.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Sept. 3 at the Anne Loeb Bronfman Gallery, Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW; 202-518-9400. washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/gallery
on view through Sept. 8 at Common Ground Gallery, VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-315-8200. www.visartscenter.org
on view through Sept. 5 at Galerie Blue Square, Robert Brown
Gallery and Neptune Gallery, 1662 33rd St. NW; 202-957-1401. www.galeriebluesquare.com
on view through Thursday at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW, 202-347-2787. www.touchstonegallery.com
on view through Aug. 31 at the Tuban-Mahan Gallery, the Center for Green Urbanism, 3938 Benning Rd. NE. www.deanwoodxdesign.com