With “Carrots” and other sculptures by Mary Shaffer, the glass appears as though it is fluid. (Courtesy of Mary Shaffer and American University Museum)

Mary Shaffer’s sculpture relies on oppositions: soft vs. hard, light vs. dark, clean vs. corroded. But the appearances of her principal materials — glass and metal — are more different than their actual natures. The glass that appears to flow is actually just as solid as the frames, hooks and tongs to which it’s attached. And the processes of making the clear or colored material — hot glass or slumped glass — are as industrial as manufacturing steel.

“Reflections and Contradictions: Five Decades,” Shaffer’s retrospective at the American University Museum, savors these incongruities. The selection, which dates to 1972, includes pieces in which glass poses as water, fabric or an icicle dripping from a rusted metal wheel. Although the patina emphasizes the bulk and strength of the metal pieces, the glass catches the light, making it appear weightless, mutable and alive.

Shaffer, who works in Texas and New Mexico, started as a painter, and two of her 1970s drawings are included here. There also are four pieces from a series in which undulating clear-glass diamonds bracket simple silver-metal shapes, rare examples of the artist’s work in which glass plays a supporting role. More often, though, it dominates, even when a small dab of the seemingly fluid material is attached to a large metal object. The found industrial pieces suggest the world as it stubbornly is; the glass evokes change, possibility and, well, art.

Mary Shaffer: Reflections and Contradictions: Five Decades On view through Oct. 18 at the American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/museum.

Leslie Nolan. "Choose To Walk Here," 36 x 36; on view at Susan Calloway Fine Arts. (Courtesy Leslie Nolan and Susan Calloway Fine Arts)

Walter McConnell

In the beginning was the wetness. Working on site, New York ceramicist Walter McConnell constructs elaborate tableaux from moist clay and lets them ooze and age inside large plastic sheaths that prevent the material from drying out. Eventually, he removes parts of the ripened compositions to fire and glaze as permanent relics of an unsustainable installation.

In “Itinerant Edens: Of Fable and Facsimile,” McConnell connects this technique to gestation and birth. In a darkened section of the AU Museum, six terrariums contain the artist’s sculpted landscapes, gardens and human figures. Three feature larger-than-life male nudes — Adams of an oversize sort — modeled on McConnell and relatives.

The reference to the Judeo-Christian origin story is plain, as is the bodily autobiography. Also, the clear partitions evoke test tubes and, thus, in-vitro creation. Humidity from the sweating clay clouds the plastic, putting the process at a remove. The real-life fog suggests the metaphorical mist of time, while the eventual disassembling of the sculptures exemplifies the endless recycling of organic matter, a process less clinically known as decay and death.

Cross MacKenzie Gallery, McConnell’s local agent, is showing some related work. Its parallel exhibition includes massive photographs that catalogue the kitschy ceramic-model forms that the artist combines to make large, ironic stupas. There’s also a yellow-glazed chunk of a disassembled tableaux and four smaller versions of the nudes that are on display at AU. These are fired and glazed, so they should endure far longer than the flesh they depict.

Walter McConnell: Itinerant Edens: Of Fable and Facsimile On view through Oct. 18 at the American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/museum. Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-337-7970. www.crossmackenzie.com.

Leslie Nolan

Impressionistic and painterly, Leslie Nolan’s portraits of unidentified people could only have been made with brush and wet pigment. Yet the paintings in her “Inner/Outer” exhibition at Susan Calloway Fine Arts have a strong graphic-arts quality. Part of that is the sense of realism underpinning them; it’s clear that at least some of the sketchy images are derived from photographs. But the essential thing is the local artist’s use of color.

Tazuko Ichikawa. "Double Square," 2006, Cray-pas; on view at Robert Brown Gallery. (Courtesy Tazuko Ichikawa and Robert Brown Gallery)

The figures are often framed by a strong, single-hue background or accented by a slash of a contrasting shade. The technique suggests a familiarity with printmaking, or even newspaper advertising in the days when spot color — a lone counterpoint to the black type — was more common than the four-ink process that produces full color.

The newspaper comparison suggests itself because Nolan usually renders faces and bodies in blacks and grays. The subjects may be heightened by tints of the color that surround them, but they are primarily monochromatic. There are variations on this approach, notably the striking “Corrected Vision II,” whose shadowy head and torso are painted in blue, with two strokes of orange over one side of the face.

Although the lack of black is atypical, the picture shares the brawn and urgency of the ones around it.

Inner/Outer: Leslie Nolan On view through Oct. 17 at Susan Calloway Fine Arts, 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-965-4601. www.callowayart.com.

Flattening the Form

Not everything in Robert Brown Gallery’s “Flattening the Form” is thinner than a pancake. Oleg Kudryashov’s paper constructions are 3-D, as is one of Barbara Liotta’s music-inspired pieces, whose thin black filaments curl off white paper as if they were notes trickling from a score. But this 10-person show is devoted mostly to drawings and prints by artists who usually work with stone, metal or wood.

Much more portable than his monumental sculptures, several of Richard Serra’s prints of corkscrew patterns have relocated from Brown’s other outpost on 14th Street, where they showed last month. They are bold and monochromatic, as is the work of two British earth artists: David Nash, whose smudgy charcoal drawings suggest assemblages of burned wood, and Andy Goldsworthy, whose red stone pigment drawing has a Stonehenge vibe. Also in red, Evan Reed’s “The Hut” emerged through painstaking etching of the solidly inked surface. Tazuko Ichikawa’s renderings of her sculptures are in black and light yellow, representing the originals’ painted wood and wax.

Executed in pastel, crayon and acrylic, Foon Sham’s three drawings are considerably more colorful. Whether as architectonic as “Shutters” or as whimsical as “Umbrella Project,” the sculptor’s pictures use vivid oranges and greens to contrast not only the rest of the show, but also the subdued natural palette of his own wood sculptures.

Flattening the Form On view through Oct. 17 at Robert Brown Gallery, 1662 33rd St. NW. 202-338-0353. www.robertbrowngallery.com.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.