In 1821, Mexico and the United States signed a treaty that established the border between the two countries “forever.” Yet this isn’t the line in the sand that has become an issue in the current presidential campaign. When artists Marcos Ramirez ERRE and David Taylor marked the former boundary with 47 steel obelisks, they symbolically excised California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and chunks of other states — all part of Mexico in 1821.
Ramirez and Taylor’s “Delimitations,” at the Mexican Cultural Institute, is paired with Stefan Falke and Daniel Schwarz’s “Walls and Borders: 2,000 Miles: Divided Land, Common Humanity,” at the Goethe-Institut. Both are primarily photographic shows, and both consider the same frontier. The same cultural frontier, that is. Falke’s pictures show artists along the current boundary, which resulted primarily from the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. (This conflict was famously opposed by Henry David Thoreau and, after the fact, by Ulysses Grant, who fought in it.) Ramirez and Taylor document the seven-foot-high steel markers (modeled on ones now along the U.S.-Mexico line) they placed in such prosaic locations as beside highways and under graffiti-tagged bridges.
Falke and Schwarz, both German-born and U.S.-based, introduce dissidents whose principal weapon is irony. A singer in a Mexican ska-reggae band wears a seven-inch record in her hair, and a visual artist sports a jacket made of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers. But sometimes artistic whimsy can lead to tangible change. When one Texas artist launched a fictitious ad campaign for an El Paso-Ciudad Juarez trolley like the one that ran from 1902 to 1974, the imaginary transit line sparked an effort to reinstate the service for real.
Taylor and the Mexican-bred Ramirez also are residents on this side of the border. As they traveled from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico, they made a video that combines images of the landscape with comments from people they met. Some see the United States as perpetually a land of immigrants, but one man gripes that American culture is “dissolving” because of newcomers. What is clear is that acquiring territory in war is not the same thing as fixing the culture that will grow there. The spores of social change can blow across the hugest of walls.
Walls and Borders: 2,000 Miles: Divided Land, Common Humanity On view through Nov. 4 at Goethe-Institut Washington, 1990 K St. NW (entrance on 20th Street). 202-847-4700. goethe.de/washington.
Delimitations On view through Jan. 28 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. 202-728-1628. instituteofmexicodc.org.
Happiness is a brightly colored thing in the Athenaeum’s current group show, “Oh! The Joy!” Only a few of the 37 artists — some invited and others from an open call — depict human emotion directly. Francois Lampietti’s childlike drawings of ecstatic dancers are atypical, except that each outlined figure is on a block of color. More common are landscapes, whether as precise as Stephen Estrada’s Caribbean surf vignette, as fanciful as Carol Barsha’s exuberant garden study, or as abstract as Mike McConnell’s playful wax-crayon-and-ink triptych. Peter McClintock moves from hard-edged to hazy in a single painting, in which a tightly painted interior frames a soft landscape.
Estrada’s sea study is complemented by Hannele Lahti’s set of photographs, also a triptych, which captures churning surf in white, black and a touch of blue. Also evocative of nature are abstractions by Anne Marchand, whose “Elemental” hints at oceanic motion, and Eve Stockton, whose “Burst” centers on a sunlike form in gleaming silver. From these, the eye moves naturally to Chris Brandel’s “Together,” painted entirely in shades of pink. It’s the show’s most minimalist piece, but its palette is warm and intimate.
Oh! The Joy! On view through Nov. 6 at The Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. 703-548-0035. nvfaa.org.
The inspiration for “Luminarium: Cosmology, Celestial Mechanics & Eschatology” was the 2015 discovery of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years from Earth. Yet Dariana Arias’s cosmic-realist paintings aren’t purely scientific. In the Latela Art Gallery show, Mayan astrology and the Hindu god Vishnu are depicted alongside near-abstract starscapes and portraits of noted physicists. The prominence of metallic gold and silver recalls medieval and renaissance religious art, also an influence on the Venezuela-bred D.C. artist’s suite of modern-day Madonnas, exhibited last year at Honfleur Gallery.
Those paintings illustrated various contemporary social issues, but were unified visually. “Luminarium” reaches wider stylistically, even mixing different modes on a single canvas. A rendering of a solar flare could pass for an experiment in color and form, while other canvases are closer to splash pages from a “Dr. Strange” graphic novel. The various themes don’t entirely cohere, but then Arias isn’t developing a unified field theory. Hung closely together on the wall as in a Victorian picture gallery, the paintings celebrate the many ways humans have looked at the heavens.
Luminarium: Cosmology, Celestial Mechanics & Eschatology by Dariana Arias On view through Nov. 6 at Latela Art Gallery, 716 Monroe St. NE, No. 27. 202-340-3280. lateladc.com.
In India, women decorate the exteriors of their homes in honor of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and domestic virtue. In Odisha, where Maryland artist Anu Das was born and raised, images for Lakshmi are drawn with rice paste on mud walls. This art form, called “chitta,” is one of the wellsprings of Das’s show at P Street Gallerie. But rather than mud, the artist uses more portable media: paper and fabric, embellished with ink, paint, beads and embroidery. She also makes art books and designs jewelry.
Working in forms traditionally associated with female artisans, Das addresses the struggles of women in general and specifically her mother, who lived through the bloody partition of India, Pakistan and the country that became Bangladesh. Often she depicts individual body parts, but in groups: pairs of henna-patterned hands or a series of bangle-adorned ankles and feet. “Healing: Sisters in Solidarity” is a woodcut of seven women’s backs, each stitched with a circle. The embroidered rounds suggest scars, but also the ability to mend and begin again.
Anu Das On view through Nov. 5 at P Street Gallerie, 3235 P St. NW. 202-333-4868. pstreetgallerie.com.