The lights are low at Hemphill Fine Arts, as if in preparation for a seance. What sort of creature Renee Stout’s eerie “Wild World” might summon from the darkness, though, is impossible to predict.
The D.C. artist draws on African religions, often as filtered through voodoo and Santeria. Her current work also includes a mixed-media piece centered on an actual cross-topped window from a Georgia Avenue storefront church, as well as numerous mechano-spiritual devices assembled from old radios and such. The show’s mysterious magnum opus, “Soul Catcher/Regenerator,” is part African totem, part receiver for broadcasts from the beyond.
In African lore, everyday and supernatural meet at the crossroads.
That’s why it became, in myths about African American bluesmen, the place where a guitarist might sell his soul to the devil. The crossroads-themed pieces in this array include a drawing and two sculptures, including one in which a small hand dangles, calling attention to another intersection: between the flat and the three-dimensional.
Stout has a genius for combining found objects in ways that appear simultaneously natural and strange. Her work can be as simple as a series of spray-painted pictures of neon signs that offer, among other uncanny products, “readings” and “herbs.” But many of these pieces are ornate, employing metal leaf, rhinestones or the red glass that represents a pool of blood on the floor beneath a painting of a bleeding heart. That blood, the viewer can be sure, was not shed carelessly. It must have been part of a powerful rite.
Renee Stout On view through Dec. 19 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW. 202-234-5601. hemphillfinearts.com.
When the Washington Project for the Arts began 40 years ago, it had a three-story commercial building, at 1227 G St. NW, all to itself. The WPA’s brand-new home, where the show “Washington Produced Artists” marks the group’s anniversary, is much smaller. There’s room for work by only five artists, all with historical ties to the WPA.
The largest piece is Dan Steinhilber’s characteristically playful “Untitled (Lake Conway),” which consists of about two dozen horizontal plastic tubes filled with liquids. Rather than lake water, the wall-filling assemblage is imbued with coffee, beer and garishly hued soda, yielding a sort of 3-D stripe painting. Equally imposing if more solemn are Jim Sanborn’s bogus Buddhist statues, which comment on the international trade in looted and counterfeit artifacts. The sandstone charlatans are presented as if in a museum, complete with such winking ownership details as “property of a gentleman.”
Also included are five William Christenberry photos of small D.C. buildings, made in the 1970s with a Brownie camera, and Joyce C. Scott’s sculptural assemblages, which combine traditional African elements with an (unfortunately) universal motif: the gun. Visitors must venture outside to see Michelle Lisa Herman’s interactive video projection, featuring the faces of WPA artists and curators.
The show opened with a performance by the Maida Withers Dance Company, and on Dec. 13, there will be a different sort of movement art. Beginning at 9 a.m. at 1227 G St. NW, Workingman Collective will lead a walking tour of all the previous WPA sites.
Washington Produced Artists On view through Dec. 19 at the Washington Project for the Arts, 2124 Eighth St. NW. 202-234-7103. wpadc.org.
Local photographer Mark Parascandola is known for photographs of disused film sets in dusty, near-empty southern Spain. The premise of his “China Film” is similar, but the locations have a different quality. The images in the BlackRock Center for the Arts show were made at Chinese movie studios that are busier and more urban than their Spanish counterparts. There are even people in these photos, including actors, crew members and two brides posing for wedding keepsakes on a replicated Hong Kong street.
Unlike in Parascandola’s previous work, the real landscape plays no role. One picture shows a real building behind the fake ones, but most of the sets are large enough to fill the entire frame. The buildings range from hovels to palaces, and their details recall a lot of history. There’s a drawing of Chairman Mao; an Iberian-style structure that may represent Portuguese-ruled Macau; and Westernized mid-century Shanghai, with the signs in English. The spectacle is fake, but it’s spectacular.
Eric Smallwood’s “Possessions of a Randomly Acquired Mind,” also at BlackRock, is an animated video piece that matches closeups of biological and mechanical processes to outline drawings of men in motion. The video, which also yielded a series of prints, illustrates what the artist calls “the multiple axes of sensation, emotion and cognition.” Movement is easier to depict than thought, of course, but Smallwood’s handsome renderings neatly juxtapose micro and macro.
Mark Parascandola: China Film and Eric Smallwood: Possessions of a Randomly Acquired Mind On view through Dec. 19 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Dr., Germantown. 301-528-2260. blackrockcenter.org/galleries/current-exhibits.
Like Eric Smallwood, Katy Duffy looks deeply into biology. The Baltimorean, one of seven artists showing in Arlington Arts Center’s “Fall Solos,” makes video pieces and 3-D wall sculptures that ponder femininity. The imagery is not literal, and often involves curved shapes that could be a rounded hip, an internal organ or something visible only under a microscope. The overall effect, though, is more akin to a playroom than an anatomy lab.
Dean Kessmann doesn’t work at the microscopic level, but he does dramatically enlarge something small and generally unnoticed: the printing codes from inside boxes of tissue, cereal and such. At this unexpected scale, the lines, bars and sunbursts of pure color do resemble abstract painting, but what provides the most visual interest are the globs of glue and roughly textured patches of cardboard. The latter’s fibers look a bit like the trees that were cut down to produce them.
Austin Shull’s “Homage” is based on the life and work of John Lyon Burnside III, who built a variation on the kaleidoscope he called the teleidoscope. Burnside was a gay activist, so the artist suggests a political application for the device: altering views of what’s “normal.” Shull’s teleidoscopic prints fracture commercial and historical pictures, although transforming an image doesn’t necessarily change perceptions.
Fall Solos On view through Dec. 20 at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-248-6800. arlingtonartscenter.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.