Most group shows are fill-in-the-blanks affairs. VisArts at Rockville’s Kaplan Gallery comes clean about that by titling its current show “_____scape.” The missing word, curator Susan Main’s statement explains, is “land.” But the 11 participants (many from Baltimore) are just as likely to contemplate art-making procedures as the natural world.
The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Heidi Fowler sticks bits of junk-mail and glossy-magazine text inside clear plastic bottle caps, and then glues them to panels in neat rows. At close range, these “plastiscapes” (which the artist titles only by number) are artfully stark. But from a distance, their patterns resemble hazy pastel landscapes.
Fowler is one of several minimalists in this group. The Ukrainian-born Elena Volkova prints small photographs of wispy skies on large sheets of paper; her “airscapes” are a visual equivalent of barely there aural environments such as Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music.” Theo Willis’s “1000 Layers” series applies that many coats of Antique White commercial house paint (in various finishes) on square wooden panels. The works reduce painting to its scantest possibilities, which might be a zen exercise. But Willis also includes record sheets that tally each coat, so as to emphasize the method as much as the result.
Some of the work is more assertive. Kim Manfredi dribbles enamel drops on areas of wet paint, yielding compositions that seem liquid and organic; the blobs suggest eyes, cells, halved fruit and other pulpy, near-spherical things. John M. Adams’s “Confluence” is an elegant, vine-like wall drawing that stretches around a corner, insisting that the viewer follow it. Steven Pearson’s two paintings are bright and busy, designed to represent “the daily ‘scape’ of hyper-connectivity and floods of data.” The painter’s “Don Quixote’s Folly,” constructed from a jumble of panels, also evokes graffiti and the hot tones of 1960s art, both fine and commercial.
The one landscape painter in the lineup, Rachel Sitkin, doesn’t take a romantic view of nature. The artist travels west to make gouaches of surface mining pits, which are depicted with surprisingly delicate color and technique. Portraying the curves of etched earth in blues and browns, “Morenci, AZ” is almost beautiful, yet altogether clear-eyed.
The first in a planned series of “Exchange” shows, the exhibition at Project 4 Gallery features 10 images made by six photographers. The dialogue is not among the photogs, whose work varies from Jati Lindsay’s high-contrast black-and-white to Josh Cogan or Caitlin Teal Price’s deep-shadowed color. The conversation comes, quite literally, from writer and actor Sheldon Scott, who chose the pictures for the stories he could make them tell. Each is accompanied by a monologue, audible via smartphone, that Scott invented without input from the photographers.
The photos are all of the District and mostly of areas that have changed dramatically in the past 20 years: Columbia Heights, the “new” Southwest, Eighth Street NE, 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. A few are less specific — a bar, a Metro train — but all are places of conflict. Or at least that’s how Scott tells it. In his vignettes, longtime residents denounce gentrification or regret redevelopment strategies. In one, a transplant cries in his beer about all the city’s fabled flaws — including that it’s full of transplants. Most of what the guy says is cliche-ridden, but Scott’s tales show how powerful received wisdom can be. It can even trump the “objective” images made by a skilled photographer.
Logan Circle’s Contemporary Wing cohabits with an interior design studio. The new gallery’s second show, installed amid domestic furnishings, features contemporary prints, drawings and photographs worthy of (and mostly not too disruptive to) an upscale home. “Off the Wall: Emin, Goldin, Hirst, Smith, Walker, Warhol” includes taboo-teasing Young British Artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, as well as the once-controversial Andy Warhol. But the Warhol is a handsome, utterly innocuous American eagle, and Hirst’s butterfly could hardly be daintier. Even Emin’s explicit but loosely rendered female nude is mild stuff for an artist who once exhibited her blood-stained underpants. The edgiest pieces here are four Nan Goldin photographs, such as “Toon, So, and Yogo on Stage, Bangkok,” that flaunt neon colors and drag-queen attitude. These images would probably unnerve the average decorator, which is not such a bad thing.
The motif of Transformer’s ninth annual “Exercises for Emerging Artists” program — in which young artists develop a show in consultation with a mentor — is, well, excrement. That substance is not on display in “E9: Design — Mass Fad Discharge,” but it’s clearly evoked by the many small sculptures made of toilet paper, as well as a lineup of (non-functioning) toilets. There are gold-wrapped chocolates inside those fake loos, whose interiors are also gilded. Among the show’s many slogans: “If it ain’t pretty, then paint it gold so at least it can sparkle and shine.”
Viewers may find the display either tasteless or clever, or perhaps something of both. The three local artists are all graphic designers, so their work has the virtue of being direct and easily read. Christie Liberatore, Shawn Moriarty and Noelle Weber riff on fast-food logos and quick-response codes, and they repurpose everyday items to illustrate their analogy between cogitation and digestion. In one of Weber’s three digital animations, letters as well as objects move through a stomach-like shape. What comes out the other end may not have great value. But the trio’s QR-emblazoned toilet paper is selling for $50 a roll.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through Aug. 10 at Kaplan Gallery, VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-315-8200; www.visartscenter.org.
On view through Aug. 11 at Project 4 Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, 3rd floor; 202-232-4340; www.project4gallery.com .
On view through Saturday at Contemporary Wing, 1412 14th St. NW; 202-730-5037; www.contemporarywing.com.
On view through Aug. 18 at Transformer, 1404 P St. NW; 202-483-1102; www.transformerdc.org .