Depicting living creatures used to begin with killing them. So it’s encouraging to learn that some of the eeriest images in “Winging It,” an avian-themed group show at Heiner Contemporary, are of birds that are merely being inconvenienced. Photographer Todd R. Forsgren follows scientists who trap birds in nets so they can tag and release them. Allotted a few minutes during the procedure, Forsgren slips a white backdrop behind the captives and fires away. The resulting images feel uncannily detached from the creatures’ natural habit — often a Central American jungle — but throw the birds’ colors, markings and textures into high relief.
Forsgren’s work provides several of the highlights of “Winging It,” which includes paintings and collages as well as photos. (Two of the latter, startlingly crisp pictures of bird remains by Colby Caldwell, were in his recent show at Hemphill.) Connecting to the ornithological tradition, the selection includes a few prints by famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, as well as Megan Greene’s collages of traditional bird illustrations and Jenny Sidhu Mullins’s precisely detailed little pencil drawings of birds, insects and plants. Also small and exacting are Beverly Ress’s colored-pencil renderings on sheets of paper that have been scored with circles or arcs.
The most striking of the nonphotographic works are by Justin Gibbens, who works in watercolor, gouache and ink; he also uses tea to add earthy stains to his generally muted palette. Trained in scientific illustration and traditional Chinese painting, Gibbens depicts his subjects realistically but places them in stylized settings. The featured birds in such works as “Hovercraft (glossy ibis)” and “Simulator (plover)” are shown next to bodies of water whose waves and ripples emulate the style of traditional East Asian screen paintings. There’s contemporary science in these works but also an ancient sense of wonder at the beauty around us.
Sometimes, a group-show concept can be so broad that it barely qualifies as a concept. Addison/Ripley Fine Art concedes that about “Click: Time & Space,” a survey of photographs it amiably calls “not at all comprehensive.” The work stretches from 1925 (and perhaps earlier) to 2011, from fetish-fashionista Helmut Newton’s 1979 picture of lingerie-clad women in a black forest to Dan Treado’s 1988 suite of 14 portraits of D.C. punk-rockers in boxing poses. All are frozen in time but otherwise have little in common.
What looks to be the oldest piece here is an undated, uncredited special-effects image of a woman in a dramatic pose, buffeted by white swirls. The other antiques include two architectural abstractions by Weegee (who was better known for crime scene snaps). The recent works tend to be bigger and more aggressively colorful, and they reflect the current taste for arresting the movement of things that are already permanently arrested: E. Brady Robinson depicts tableaux from Jesusland, a pious amusement park, while James Osher grabs blurry impressions of Old Master canvases. Multiple views of the same subject, shot from different angles or at different moments, are also common. Such gambits insist on the subjectivity of vision — even a vision captured “objectively” by an electro-mechanical device.
London, Berlin and Kazakhstan are among the locations, but most of the pictures depict America the beautiful (vast skies, epic terrain) or shabby (battered frame houses, a graffiti-tattooed resort boardwalk). Some of the photos were made locally and depict Washington scenes or luminaries (Christopher Hitchens in 1990). But if that’s a subtheme, it’s a minor one. Better just to take these images, or series, one at a time. They may not add up to a coherent idea, but many of them are individually lucid.
A busy cafe is not the ideal place to view art, since the process often involves staring over or around irked patrons. But Politics and Prose’s Modern Times Coffeehouse has two advantages over Photoworks’ normal venue, its exhibition space at Glen Echo Park: The bookstore has a more accessible location and much longer hours. So it’s a convenient place to see “Beyond the Park: Images by the Photoworks Faculty,” which marks the gallery and school’s 30th anniversary with a selection of images by some of its instructors.
Unlike many recent photography exhibitions, this one is short on digital-age gimmicks and teasing anti-realism. Most of the pictures are direct, elegantly composed and in black and white — although closer inspection of Eliot Cohen’s glacial landscape reveals hints of blue in the predominantly icy scene. Emma Norman’s photo of a cloaked figure is beguilingly mysterious, but most of the images are straightforward. They may isolate their subjects, as Karen Keating’s studies of faces do, or place them in context, as in the case of such environmental portraits as Richard Pippin’s “Dan at the Diner” or Frank Van Riper’s “Madonna of the Penny Candy.” Either way, these photographers show their dedication to photography as a way of seeing, and not of deceiving.
Photography isn’t entirely excluded from Megan Mueller’s “I Built This for You,” but it’s wood, whether painted and not, that’s central to this mixed-media work. Like many shows at Flashpoint, Mueller’s is a site-specific installation. The artist’s goal, the gallery explains, is to “merge her interests in both sculpture and drawing.”
Since the objects she’s made for us include a small house-like structure and blades of blue-green paper that resemble grass, it seems that Mueller also intends to merge nature and architecture. That formula equals the suburbs, which some of these pieces evoke. But others are more abstract or ambiguous: A series of slats, arrayed on the floor, is painted to show one turn of the color wheel. A different sort of wheel, designed to a precise standard of wobbliness, welcomes visitors to the gallery. It suggests — gently and in pleasant hues — that the world we’ve all built is off-kilter.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through July 27 at Heiner Contemporary, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-338-0072; www.heinercontemporary.com .
on view through July 14 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-338-5180; www.addisonripleyfineart.com .
on view through July 15 at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-364-1919; www.politics-prose.com .
on view through July 14 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/