The bulwark between “high” and “low” culture was breached long ago, but one art form still often dismissed as low is the comic book. Pyramid Atlantic Art Center takes a whack at that attitude with “Not Too High, Not Too Low,” for which curator Amy Loko invited six local comics artists to apply their skills to something different. A few of them responded by reaching for a paintbrush, but the most intriguing pieces here aren’t necessarily the ones that stray furthest from the comic-book template.
Eric Gordon pays winking tribute to another high-art challenger — pop music — with transformed album covers. Retooling words and images with marker and acrylic paint, the artist twists Herb Alpert, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand albums into good-natured absurdities and remakes the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as “Lunar Lips.” Enjoyment is tempered only slightly by recalling that puckish rockers have already played this game themselves: One example is the Residents’ 1974 debut album, originally issued in a sleeve that vandalized “Meet the Beatles.”
Toni Lane is showing primitivist drawings and paintings that are closer to the art in the National Gallery of Art’s current “Outliers” show than to underground comics, while Andrew Cohen goes 3-D with cutout silhouettes placed inside boxes. Jessica Aguero takes an even more deconstructionist approach, exploding a story into dozens of close-up details. Rendered in watercolor and scattered to fill a whole wall, the splintered illustration toys elegantly with expectations.
Anna Sellheim’s and Lenora Yerkes’s contributions are closer to classic comics formats, yet reflect a very different universe than the ones occupied by Archie or Batman. Sellheim recounts the simplest of moments — holding hands, applying lipstick, exhaling smoke — in four-panel colored-pencil drawings. Also in a four-panel layout, but on a much vaster scale, Yerkes’s intricate ink-and-gouache tale uses water imagery to signify the erosion of memory. Categories are pointless when a comics-rooted artist produces something as rich and resonant as this.
Not Too High, Not Too Low Through April 13 at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 4318 Gallatin St., Hyattsville. 301-608-9101. pyramidatlanticartcenter.org.
The five area artists in the Athenaeum’s “Parallel Lives” have diverse personal backstories that encompass nearly a dozen national or ethnic origins. Brigitte Reyes has curated a show of diverse styles, concerns and media, linked by overlapping techniques and a shared interest in overlapping in general.
The gentlest work is by Amy Lin, who draws colorful dots and curving lines on paper that she sometimes cuts and layers to craft abstract, multilevel mini-universes. Photographer Muriel Hasbun also employs multiple strata, but her goal is to illustrate the complexity of a family history that flows from Europe and the Middle East via Central America to Washington. Antonius Bui, a first-generation Vietnamese American, combines hand-cut papers with photos, ink, paint and textiles in vignettes of the Vietnam War.
Both Nekisha Durrett and Jeff Huntington are mural makers whose work here is on a smaller scale. Huntington is showing portraits, some painted and others made with collaged magazine clippings; both varieties deftly fragment and unify the likeness at the same time. Some of Durrett’s pieces are framed in vintage portrait frames, but they’re drawings, skillfully executed in a sepia-toned, graphic-novel style. Inspired by a photo found in her under-renovation D.C. rowhouse, the artist employs historical pictures in a fictional but semi-autobiographical family saga. Although Durrett doesn’t use a knife, she joins her fellow artists in cutting and pasting an identity.
Parallel Lives Through April 15 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. 703-548-0035. nvfaa.org.
Although blurred and scraped, the recurring shapes in Erick Johnson’s brightly hued abstractions are essentially regular. The New York painter calls them “calligraphic parallelograms,” which is evocative, if not literally accurate. Where calligraphy is drawn spontaneously, Johnson methodically applies pigment, partly removes it and then adds more. This yields streaked and layered forms, and results in such serene yet active pictures as “(Inside) Out,” which provides the title of the artist’s Gallery Neptune & Brown exhibition.
The show illustrates one of the new wrinkles in Johnson’s most recent work. Most often, the artist’s parallelograms appear to gush horizontally, suggesting movement off or beyond the canvas. Some of his latest pictures have more vertical features, and may include upright bars that halt the sideways action. More effectively, Johnson occasionally groups kindred colors, notably in “Tideline,” which pits four stripes in shades of blue-green against a predominantly red-orange array.
This selection includes several charcoal-on-paper drawings to demonstrate that the artist’s compositions work in black-and-white. Yet the depth, contrast and sense of movement of Johnson’s most vivid works can’t be achieved without of swoop of vivid translucent color.
(Inside) Out: New Work by Erick Johnson Through April 14 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW. 202-986-1200. neptunefineart.com.
Another artist who subtracts as he elaborates, Brennan Emmett Cox beleaguers his paintings with what he calls “the eroding forces of water and turpentine.” In “Sweet With Rot,” the Baltimore artist’s 39th Street Gallery show, the mixed-media portraits of near-nude, model-like figures are literally defaced: The subjects’ features have been vehemently obliterated. Most strikingly, “Wrought With Mirth” seems to slough off the wall, its pigments melded with folds of rumpled plastic hanging below the bottom of the canvas.
The bodies are realistically rendered, and in a few of the pictures part of a legible face can be glimpsed beneath the simulated rot. The figures are sometimes framed by short phrases, painted in contrasting colors. These reveal that Cox’s goal is to make pictures that function “as a visual erasure of modern advertisements.” Rather than express mortality or existential dread, the liquefying flesh in these paintings represents the effects of consumerism. Beauty plus marketing adds up to a meltdown.
Sweet With Rot: Brennan Emmett Cox Through April 14 at 39th Street Gallery, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Second Floor, Brentwood. 202-487-8458. 39thstreetgallery.org.