Some artists complete their work by damaging it. Peter Kephart begins with destruction, then partially remedies it. But some of the most striking pieces in his current Zenith Gallery show, “Fire, Water, Earth and Wind: The Unforgettable Firepaintings of Peter Kephart,” are the least remedied.
The West Virginia artist doesn’t literally paint with fire, but he does use the heat from glowing embers to scorch and sometimes burn the cotton-rag paper to which he later adds pastel and watercolor. Before he brings the paper close to the warmth, he sprays it with water to prevent it from bursting into flame, and adds dots and squiggles of starch to preserve areas of whiteness. Sometimes, he draws charcoal lines with the hot end of a glowing stick, or uses gunpowder to blow small holes in the paper. Since he enlists such mercurial forces, Kephart must work quickly — and trust his intuition.
The resulting patterns inspire the finished works, which often take the form of landscapes. Charcoal daubs become trees, and a patch of blue sky turns a browned expanse into an autumn field. Kephart can add so much color to a picture that, disappointingly, its fire origins are obscured. But usually when the artist adds hues — including by placing colored paper behind burned-through areas — they complement the seared areas and voids.
Still, many of the show’s highlights are unpainted firepaintings, crafted only with heat, water, starch and charcoal marks. The complex and robust “Beyond the Burning Land” suggests the work of a pyrotechnic Franz Kline. No less arresting, although simpler, is “Firewater,” which features a burned-off corner and dots and circles of intense white. These are nothing more than bits of blank paper that went uncharred; surrounded by regions of tan, brown and black, the absences appear exceptionally luminous. The rare spots that survived the fire unscathed are what burn the brightest.
White highlights are also important in Dana Westring’s drawings, but they’re not where the process begins. Westring, who’s showing with photographer Andrew Sovjani in “Images on Paper” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts, usually draws on tan or gray paper, and those backdrops remain the dominant color. The Virginia artist has made a series of views of a rocky Maine peninsula, mostly in graphite. He adds colored pencil, often sparingly, with white chalk to simulate spots where sunlight plays most dazzlingly on the stone. Westring occasionally uses watercolor, but most of these pictures are rendered with exquisite detail in just gray and white. They’re so simple that a splash of white or a slash of rusty brown can be astonishing.
In his photographs of paper, books and architecture, Sovjani as well works with a limited palette. The stark images of weathered rural structures in his “Almost Gone” series are expressive on their own, but Sovjani enhances them subtly by altering the silver gelatin medium with bleaches, acids and homemade toners. Working within the emulsion’s available shades of gold and platinum, the Massachusetts photo-artist adds halos around the buildings and streaks to the sky and ground. While the subjects remain humble, the metallic hues give them an eerie sheen.
The recently concluded presidential election was one inspiration for “Of the People,” a show of politically charged yet elegantly designed “street art” and videos at Contemporary Wing’s temporary space near Ninth and N streets NW. The show was also spurred by other developments, including the Arab Spring and the death this year of Elizabeth Catlett, a D.C.-born and -educated African American artist who spent most of her adult life in Mexico.
The five Catlett prints, dating from 1949 to 1987, directly and vigorously address such issues as apartheid, black pride and racial integration in Cuba. Nearby are five posters by two pseudonymous Egyptian street artists, delivering such messages as “Muslim Rage is not Arab Spring” with crisp, simple images and mostly English text. (Only one piece features Arabic.) Shepard Fairey, perhaps best known for the 2008 Obama “Hope” poster, contributes less-sanguine 2011 silk-screens that feature presidents unloved by left-wing poster artists.
“It’s Mourning in America” is the slogan above a saluting Ronald Reagan, one of four images that present American business and Republican politics as interlocked. Guerrilla Girls, a New York collective of anonymous feminist artists, may have the solution to the alliance Fairey deplores. Their poster depicts an estrogen pill as a missile and counsels dropping it “on Washington and the super-rich.” One advantage of poster art is that it’s available to more than just the wealthy. A copy of “Estrogen Super Rich” can be had for $500, which is a lot more affordable than establishing a super PAC.
Leah Appel has an eye for blue. Her Hillyer Art Space show, “New Work: Elements of Design,” includes photos of Washington’s monumental core in which buildings and trees are upstaged by vast expanses of sky. But the color doesn’t have to be natural to appeal to Appel. The local photographer’s subjects include four azure trash cans on a dramatically sloping sidewalk, lined up next to a crimson door as if awaiting a cue to enter.
As the show’s title indicates, Appel is interested in architectural details. She captures street lamps, cornice lines and the occasional out-of-place pagoda, often viewed from oblique angles. The multi-frame “Boardwalk/Tybee Island” chops a section of beach into an almost-continuous panorama. Sometimes her images are near-abstract color fields, yet Appel also likes the contrast between other-worldly colors and everyday scenes. One of this selection’s most vivid photos shows simply a chair, a wall and some ping-pong paddles but in shades of blue, green and red that verge on the hallucinatory.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Nov. 27 at Zenith Gallery, Chevy Chase Pavilion, 5355 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-783-2963; www.zenithgallery.com.
on view through Nov. 24 at Susan Calloway Fine Arts, 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-965-4601; www.callowayart.com.
on view through Nov. 24 at Contemporary Wing pop-up space, 1250 Ninth St. NW; 202-730-5037; www.contemporarywing.com.
on view through Nov. 30 at Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW; 202-338-0680; www.artsandartrists.org/hillyer.php.