Drawing is the world’s oldest artistic profession, and there’s still pleasure — both sensual and cerebral — in pulling a line across a sheet of paper. But only one of the four artists represented in “Drawing: An Exhibition of Widely Different Approaches” actually employs a pencil. The subtitle of this show, at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, is no hype. All the work on display uses line and shape, but much of it strays far from the everyday sketchbook.
The pieces that stray the furthest are Jim Sanborn’s large-format photographs, which document geometric patterns he “drew” with light on landscapes in Ireland and Oregon. The Washington artist is known for three-dimensional work derived from science, including oceanography, cryptography and nuclear fission. His photographed-light drawings contemplate “invisible forces,” but that’s just the beginning of their appeal.
Sanborn is apparently a top-flight tinkerer, and he built his own high-powered projector to cast white lines on night-darkened cliffs and castles. (He still had to use long exposures to get the designs to register on film.) Made in the late 1990s, the “Topographical Projections” pit the visible world’s irregularities against the sort of order preferred by mathematicians and classical philosophers. His light drawings impose a human presence on nature, and yet, unlike most “earth works,” leave no trace. Concept aside, they’re gorgeous. The contrast between deep night colors and the projected white light is rich and ravishing.
Another science-based artist, Athena Tacha, makes images by assembling mushrooms and then applying pressure so that their spores leave patterns on black paper. The results, which suggest early forms of direct-contact photography, are both impressively detailed and quite lovely. The local artist also draws, on the same sort of black paper, with tinseled hot glue. The example here, “S-Strings,” is impressively painstaking, but not as striking as the mushroom-generated work.
Maria Moser is more attuned to history than nature. She lives and works in an old inn in rural Austria, where she paints in oil atop diagrams of the farm equipment her father used to repair. Her loose and often brightly colored additions follow the basic shapes of the black-and-white technical drawings, only partially obscuring them. Her work is connected to both personal history and the pragmatic reasons for putting lines on paper.
A pop quiz for architecture buffs, Nancy Wolf’s graphite-on-paper drawings array structural details and entire buildings in intricate compositions. “Turbulent Landscape,” for example, incorporates cathedrals, pagodas, Greek columns, an earthen African mosque, Norman Foster’s “gherkin” tower and metal spirals from the Frank Gehry playbook. Like 18th-century architectural fabulist Giovanni Piranesi, Wolf renders the unreal, but with authoritative detail. Although the worlds she depicts are impossible, each individual piece appears genuine.
Welcoming everyone to the world of drawing, Austin Thomas has designed a desk that currently sits at the center of Heiner Contemporary gallery, outfitted with pens and pencils. Visitors can sit there and doodle, page through some of Thomas’s sketchbooks or simply soak up the aesthetic attitude oozing from such artifacts as a copy of Situationist Guy Debord’s cult book, “Society of the Spectacle.” Clearly, “Austin Thomas: Studies” is not an elementary drawing exercise.
Around the desk, the New York artist has arrayed works on paper, some framed in glass boxes and others simply pinned to the wall. These include drawings and collages, as well as a few involuntary collaborations: Thomas found a cache of awkward sketches from a life-drawing class, and added her own elements to them. There are also prints that memorialize snatches of overheard conversation, both hopeful (“silver lining”) and dismissive (“don’t be silly”).
Thomas is interested in art as an opportunity for dialogue. She designs “perches” for public spaces, to draw passersby much the way the desk might. These examples of “social sculpture” are finely crafted, but for works on paper Thomas prefers a rougher finish. Many of her collages and drawings have an offhand quality; blocks of color are scratchily filled in with pen or pencil. Perhaps Thomas will discuss this contrast when she closes the show with a talk at 4 p.m. March 3.
Most of the work in “Constructions: New Work by Eric Garner” is literally constructed. The Maryland artist, who’s showing at McLean Project for the Arts, assembles slats of wood, each piece painted a different hue. The various pieces suggest many things, but all are made from scraps salvaged from construction projects. So, in a sense, Garner’s sculpture is about the same thing as the handful of paintings in the show: the suburbs.
All framed in natural-wood boxes, Garner’s small paintings depict subdivisions, highway interchanges and cul-de-sacs. The pictures range from “Two Landscapes,” which is quite realistic, to such pieces as “Post-War Development” and “Tank Facility,” which verge on decorative abstraction. The styles of Washington Color School artists — Anne Truitt’s painted columns, Gene Davis’s stripes — echo most strongly in Garner’s sculpture, but occasionally also in his paintings.
The sculpture can incorporate vinyl panels or metal hardware, and one includes a fluorescent light fixture. Most, however, are nothing but painted wood, usually in contrasting bright and muted shades. Yet the assemblages are as diverse as the artist’s approach: He labels some of them definitely (“Harbor Buoy”), but more typically uses such titles as “Vessel #2” or “Gray Form.” Either way, Garner’s use of color, form and texture is beguiling. Weathered wood and austere colors evoke places from another time, while stripes of clean, hot color suggest a fast-food outlet that opened last week. It’s the suburbs, all right.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through Feb. 29 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW; 202-328-0088; www.marshamateykagallery.com.
On view through March 3 at Heiner Contemporary, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-338-0072; www.heinercontemporary.com.
On view through March 3 at McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean; 703-790-1953; www.mpaart.org.