In the early years of Lorton Reformatory, which operated from 1916 to 2001, the inmates actually made bricks and used them to erect prison buildings. That task is one of the meanings of “Brick Layers,” the title of the Washington Sculptors Group show at Workhouse Arts Center, which has repurposed the former jail’s buildings for artist studios and galleries.
The phrase also refers to physically assembling brick structures, a process that might seem to interest sculptors. But few of these works, which fill the Vulcan Gallery and spill out into the nearby quad, actually use brick. Instead, the 24 artists focus on narrative, excavating layers of Lorton history.
Dane Winkler’s outdoor piece is a small brick structure in the shape of a casket, representing the way prisoners built their own tomb-like home while also suggesting a kiln in which bricks are fired. Among other works that evoke the inmates’ experience are Steven Dobbin’s “Karl’s Barrow,” an overturned wheelbarrow from which small, rusted steel figures of anonymous men spill onto the floor.
The Lorton complex once housed several Cold War installations, including a Nike missile site. Greg Braun constructed an homage to this facility, with 64 miniature projectiles in flight (actually suspended on wires). Rather than models of missiles, he used pencils, symbolizing the conversion of a military site into an artistic one.
A single event from Lorton’s history prompted the most responses. In 1917, about 170 women’s suffrage activists were sent there and many were brutalized. The artists portray those events with an assemblage of old-fashioned keys, 168 ceramic roses, a punching bag covered in doilies and a nightshirt imprinted with female prisoners’ names.
Baltimore artist Artemis Herber and Korea’s Eunsook Lee collaborated on a memorial to 33 of the women, using old photographs, metal poles and boxes made of transparent plastic or cardboard weathered to resemble rusted metal. The construction refers to a specific event but also touches on themes common to “Brick Layers” — incarceration, dehumanization and the view through the bars. The prisoner can look out at a society that rarely chooses to look in.
Brick Layers On view through June 28 at Workhouse Arts Center, 9601 Ox Rd., Lorton. 703-495-0001. www.workhousearts.org.
Working solo, Eunsook Lee also made a site-specific installation for Target Gallery. The Korean artist is known for art on the theme of separation, a natural concern for a native of a divided country. “Dispersed Family” takes a broader perspective, beginning with letters and photographs of her own family and expanding to other countries and cultures. There’s text in English, Chinese and Japanese as well as Korean, and pillars embellished with names of Native American tribes.
That describes the piece’s content, but not its form. Lee has affixed the text to clear plastic boxes and furniture, stitched the elements together with light-sensitive thread and bathed the room in black light. The effect is both eerie and enveloping, and turns the patchwork into a whole. “Dispersed Family” may not be a profound statement on globalization, but it’s a striking visual experience.
Eunsook Lee: Dispersed Family On view through May 31 at Target Gallery, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-838-4565, Ext. 4. www.torpedofactory.org/partners/target-gallery.
“Interactivity” is a contemporary buzzword, but it doesn’t require the latest technology. Molly Springfield’s “The Marginalia Archive,” at Flashpoint Gallery, documents dialogue between writers and readers via a venerable medium: scribbles on pages of books. The exhibition highlights some examples and includes a photocopy machine so that visitors can add to the collection. The concept extends across the street to the MLK Library’s second floor, where a display case holds nine District-owned books — discovered by Springfield — annotated in a way that the library probably doesn’t want to encourage.
Given this emphasis on texts, viewers might reasonably assume that Springfield’s work is all about words. Yet the large pieces on Flashpoint’s walls are not oversized photocopies, but hand-drawn facsimiles of them. The D.C. artist methodically renders them in pencil, complete with the distortions introduced by the copying process. Without significantly altering the originals, she changes their character. There are many possible interpretations of the symbolism of this act, but one practical effect is simply to denature the book bits she chooses to draw. That reminds us that language is an imperfect, and sometimes even arbitrary, means of representing the world.
Molly Springfield: The Marginalia Project On view through May 30 at Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St. NW. 202-315-1305. www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/flashpoint-gallery.
There’s barely a whisper of green in Jaroslaw Sznytzer’s forests. The forceful paintings in the Poland-bred American artist’s “Fire Trees,” at Gallery A, often feature bare black trees highlighted in red. The pictures, partly inspired by childhood memories of the area around Krakow, include a few placid landscapes, but most are boldly expressionist and suggest Poland’s turbulent history. Although Sznytzer doesn’t literally depict forest fires, his palette is mostly in shades of burning or burned.
Also included are pictures that leave the woods and enter the realm of fabulism. This work can appear futuristic, although several canvases feature geometric, bird-headed creatures that resemble bit players from Hieronymus Bosch’s epic 15th-century visions. But perhaps the tumult of Sznytzer’s style merely denotes the way strong images emerge from the haze of memory. And maybe the artist’s fiery trees simply offer a dramatic view of autumn, not of conflagration.
Jaroslaw Sznytzer: Fire Trees On view through May 31 at Gallery A, 2106 R St. NW. 202-667-2599. www.alexgalleries.com.
Daniel Angeles paints watercolors with a touch so light it’s almost weightless, so it’s fitting that his favorite subjects include butterflies, hummingbirds and hot-air balloons. These airborne elements most often flutter around old books, although many other things, animate and inanimate, are depicted in “The Next Chapter,” the Dallas artist’s show at P Street Gallerie. In perhaps the most whimsical of these whimsies, two hummingbirds apply the stripes to a zebra.
The self-taught painter says that his tidy, delicate pictures constitute his journal and that the droplets of color shed by the hummingbirds represent emotion. Private meanings aside, this work is notable for its deft balance of precision and fantasy. A mild-mannered surrealist, Angeles composes gentle dream images without a hint of nightmares.
Daniel Angeles: The Next Chapter On view through May 31 at P Street Gallerie, 3235 P St. NW. 202-333-4868. www.pstreetgallerie.com.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.