There’s as much grim fairy tale as sunny new-age whimsy stitched into Erika Cleveland’s fabric figurines. Some of the most memorable creations in the D.C. artist’s “There, There: Healing Dolls as Solace in an Off Kilter World” are “flip dolls,” whose identities depend on which end is up. Hanging like trapeze performers at WAS Gallery, the funky mixed-media beings can twirl from joy to loss, sun to moon or literature to pop culture.
Trained as an art therapist, Cleveland is drawn to fables of duality and rebirth. Her subjects include a selkie, the half-seal half-woman of Scottish lore, and a woman emerging from a dragon. The face of Baba Yaga, the mythic Slavic forest spirit, peers from inside a bear’s head, and on her dress is attached a tree on which new human souls are germinating. (The souls, which appear in other pieces, as well, look less like fruit than newly hatched yellow chicks.) With an eye to current events, a “Black Lives Matter” doll is part policeman, part potential target.
Many of the artist’s needle-felted creatures are kid-friendly, if not exactly cuddly; her “Woodland Spirits” suggest the influence of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” illustrations. But the selection also includes “The Experience of Pleasure,” a vulva-like blossom whose folds are defined by lines of beads. Cleveland’s embodiments of fertility and transformation can be as earthy as they are fanciful.
So, too, are the soft sculptures and small paintings of Lindsay Hall’s “Luscious and Pluscious.” Brightly colored and often sparkly, Hall’s stuffed fabric objects initially appear more suited for a pre-K classroom than do Cleveland’s playfully grotesque dolls. A closer look at the IA&A at Hillyer show, however, reveals its sensuality.
Admittedly, much of the craving seems to involve sugary treats. The paintings are executed in candy and cupcake hues, and their titles invoke sherbet, doughnuts and marshmallows. But some of the fabric pieces feature interlacing forms that resemble plush versions of yoni and lingam, the sacred Hindu embodiment of female and male.
The Las Vegas-based artist is compelled by “pleasure, desire and intimacy,” according to a gallery note. When Hall titled one painting “Jelly Jelly Jelly Roll,” she surely was aware of the phrase’s history as a jazz and rhythm-and-blues double entendre.
Erika Cleveland: There, There: Healing Dolls as Solace in an Off Kilter World Through March 2 at WAS Gallery, 5110 Ridgefield Rd., Bethesda. Lindsay Hall: Luscious and Pluscious Through Feb. 24 at IA&A at Hillyer, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW.
The affinities among the three local artists of “Paint + Pigment + Color” come in pairs: The pictures of Emily Conover and Steve Wanna appear to emanate from some sort of core. Conover’s work, like Pat Goslee’s, is deliberate and heavily worked. And Goslee and Wanna use similarly vivid and wide-ranging palettes.
Wanna, who’s better known for light and sound pieces, made this series by smashing plaster shells filled with both liquid and powdered pigment on a painted surface. The results are immediate, explosive and intentionally messy — although fixed permanently in place by clear resin. Shards of the plaster projectiles remain embedded in the random color, whose accidental patterns draw the eye to the pictures’ off-center hubs. The most vibrant painting spatters yellow on bluish purple.
Both Conover and Goslee also employ dark backgrounds but here prefer black to brighter hues. Conover’s collage-paintings are primarily in black and white, with white sometimes painted atop the curving 3-D forms. While abstract, the pictures suggest storms or machines, seemingly rotating in a manner that draws the arcing fragments together.
Although not traditionally representational, Goslee’s recent paintings are incited by real-world events. In her statement, the artist explains that these 2018 pictures are a reaction to gentrification in her D.C. neighborhood. This theme is not overt, although figures and architectural details are nearly recognizable within the mostly abstract compositions: A ruthless developer prowls in “Wolf,” while “Back Door” hints at a porch. Goslee (who is married to Washington Post writer Michael O’Sullivan) contrasts patterns with looser gestures, sometimes partly overpainting the previous image. The resulting sense of fluidity, layering and complexity is akin to changing urban fabric.
Paint + Pigment + Color Through Feb. 23 at Portico Gallery, 3807 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood.
Helen Zughaib, a longtime admirer of Jacob Lawrence, thought of his work when civil war began to drive people from Syria. Emulating Lawrence’s series of paintings about the exodus of African Americans from the Jim Crow South, the Beirut-born local artist began painting “Syrian Migration.” The series is now on display at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds, along with one collage and three thematically related paintings that aren’t modeled on Lawrence’s work. These include a stark vignette based on the drowning death of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Mediterranean beach and became the subject of an indelible photograph.
Painting with gouache on board, Zughaib renders scenes of war and chaos with her customary clean colors and crisp lines. Each image in the series is displayed with a thumbnail of the Lawrence picture that sparked it, which reveals the range of Zughaib’s approach. Some of her pictures closely follow Lawrence’s compositions; others play on a single element.
Zughaib sometimes changes small details. Whereas Lawrence’s migrants carried their belongings in sacks, the professional-class Syrians tote briefcases. The names of northern cities on a train station’s destination signs become those of European countries at airport gates. Other alterations are profound and disturbing: The rays of sunlight that seared crops during a Deep South drought become the wafting poison of chemical weapons in a Syrian scene.
Lawrence made 60 “Migration” paintings; Zughaib has done 25, and is still working. Sadly, she is unlikely to run out of sources of inspiration anytime soon.
Helen Zughaib: Syrian Migration Through Feb. 28 at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds, 2425 Virginia Ave. NW.