Social stratification always looms over Ben Tolman’s obsessively detailed cityscapes, but life at the bottom turns even more threatening in his newest drawings. The D.C. artist’s Gallery Neptune & Brown show, “Weltschmerz,” features ominous vignettes such as “Purple People Eater,” in which a large-mouthed beast awaits those unfortunate enough to happen upon it, one level below the street. Its maw may be an allegorical representation of “Weltschmerz,” a German phrase that literally means “world pain.”
Anyone who saw Tolman’s 2015 Flashpoint show will notice a new element. Although the drawings are still primarily black and white, some include colorful accents. “Entrance” features a multihued mound of what could be lava or protoplasm, but the others incorporate just one color, most often red: the railings and guide ropes that direct crowds in “Path” and “Queue” and, more subtly, the tiny flag a guide uses to lead people through a half-demolished neighborhood in “Tour.” You can guess the color of the spatter and pooled, brackish runoff in “Purple People Eater.”
Tolman’s themes include regimentation, commercialism and the clash of the subcultures that cities pack into relatively small areas. In “Market,” trash and graffiti on the lower floors yield to sleek facades and corporate logos higher up. That picture is one of several in which the composition cuts off below the top. Another is “Forward,” in which scores of people climb stairs that lead to — what? Is there something great above, or just another staircase that leads back down?
Tolman, who works intuitively, probably doesn’t know the answer himself. But his art captures the promise of the urban experience, in which amazement might await around the next corner. The surprise may not be pleasant, but it appears that Tolman — a Wheaton native — prefers the urban enigma to suburban certainty.
Weltschmerz: Recent Drawings by Ben Tolman On view through Feb. 25 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW. 202-986-1200. galleryneptunebrown.com.
“Cut” concludes a trio of Greater Reston Arts Center shows, following “Stitch” and “Bead.” Those titles suggest art of domestic means and scale, and most of the work in this six-artist show would indeed fit into a parlor. Yet Eric Standley has filled one section of the gallery with a 17-foot-long tree branch, mounted horizontally atop two boulders. It’s titled “Daphne,” after the nymph turned into a laurel tree by Apollo, according to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”
The piece is brawny yet delicate, because Standley has filled with paper filigree the notch that runs nearly the log’s entire length. The Blacksburg artist’s other work is mostly paper, segmented, recessed and intricately arranged in as many as 174 layers. Influenced by a trip to Dubai, Standley’s “Either/Or” series riffs on the decorative style of Islamic architecture. Resembling gates, keyholes and ornamental windows, these wall-mounted constructions evoke both order and intrigue.
Several other contributors take inspiration from nature’s architecture. Beverly Ress, whose work is often shown locally, contrasts precise colored-pencil drawings of museum specimens; these are set off by corkscrew and basket-weave patterns carved into the paper. A large, wall-mounted assemblage by Baltimore’s Leslie Shellow consists of two biomorphic clusters connected by a spiraling cord. Bhavna Mehta, an Indian-born San Diegan, snips vine- and leaflike shapes and suspends them to cast a lattice of shadows. As in Standley’s work, Mehta’s cut paper is a means of eliciting fantastic depths.
Cut On view through Feb. 18 at Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Reston. 703-471-9242. restonarts.org.
There are a lot of red accents in “La Vie en Bleu,” the blue-heavy group exhibition at the Mansion at Strathmore. Crimson flames burst at the center of Kung Chee-Keong’s abstract drawing-painting, and scarlet beads dangle through the center of Jacqueline Maggi’s assemblage. More playfully, Richard Foa’s sculpture of a clarinet-playing “Blues Crab” features red pincers.
The jazzy crustacean is one of the best thematic fits: The juried show is meant to complement Strathmore’s “Shades of Blues” music festival. But there are more differences than similarities in this array of painting, sculpture, photography and more by roughly 100 contributors. The liveliest work includes Jessica Dupuis’s blue-on-blue swirl, made of thousands of ceramic shards, and Bruce Morgan’s photo composite, in which the only azure element is a blue-stockinged leg that kicks up from behind a sofa.
Oddly, few pieces depict two of the bluest things around — water and sky. Bob Carlson does give a neoimpressionist shimmer to his painting of a YMCA pool, but the most aquatic entries are Artemis Herber’s swoops of painted cardboard, the larger ones in deep blues and the small ones in paler shades. She calls the latter forms “Flags,” but they curl like waves.
Le Vie en Bleu On view through Feb. 19 at the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. 301-581-5109. strathmore.org/visual-arts/exhibitions.
At Hamiltonian Gallery, Nakeya Brown and Christie Neptune construct likenesses of African American women. It might be said that these are self-portraits, but not literally. Both artists look to the past: Brown’s “Some Assembly Required” repurposes her grandmother’s photo album, while Neptune’s “Ms. _______ (Interior)” frames images of contemporary women with text that invokes a white-racist worldview.
Among Brown’s three diptychs of family photographs is a snapshot that shows flowery wallpaper. She used similar wallpaper as the backdrop for studies of outdated domestic items, including a cooking pot, an alarm clock and some hair conditioner. The presence of women from decades ago is implied, yet the exact image is left to be conjured by the observer.
Neptune uses both photos and video in various formats to picture black women who gaze obliquely at the viewer. Some of this slo-mo portraiture is accompanied by words that recall the age of European exploration. These correlate a subject’s unknown thoughts, as she turns the pages of a book, to the “interior” of continents that were once mysterious to white colonialists. The quest to understand strangers, the juxtaposition suggests, is as much political as psychological.
Nakeya Brown: Some Assembly Required and Christie Neptune: Ms. _______ (Interior) On view through Feb. 18 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW. 202-332-1116. hamiltoniangallery.com.