The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the galleries: More than just selfies, more than just photos

Fithi Abraham’s “One/Many No.1,” acrylic on wood panel, on view at IA&A at Hillyer. (Fithi Abraham/IA&A at Hillyer)
Placeholder while article actions load

Now that every well-to-do person’s pocket holds a camera, self-portraiture has been democratized to the point of nausea. Maybe that’s why there are no straightforward depictions of the human face in “Revealed,” an eight-person survey of artful self-imagery at IA&A at Hillyer. Traditional photographic portraits can still have power, though, as is demonstrated at the same venue by “The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors.”

Thematically, the pieces chosen for “Revealed” by curator Nicole Dowd play familiar chords. Among these are memory, the body, family history, talismanic objects, personal identity and fragmentation. Many of the contributors use visual devices from cinema, which reflects how looking at movies has changed the way we view ourselves.

Eritrean-American painter Fithi Abraham splits his face across 12 narrow, vertically oriented panels; the slices may represent rupture, but they also offer a sense of becoming and potential unity. In Annette Isham’s video, shot with a drone and severed into unequal parts, two versions of a person meet and meld on a grasslands path.

Muriel Hasbun overlays a vintage portrait of parents and children with that of the bench on which they’re seated, as though it holds some recollection of the bygone moment. Mandy Cooper uses the flesh on her back and the soles of her feet as a canvas on which to print what are, most likely, old family photos. The ones on her back are in sequence, thus visually equating the artist’s lineage with her spine. In many of these works, ancestry and individuality are linked like vertebrae.

The large-format black-and-white photos in “The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors” are presented more as history than art. The names of the nine subjects are emphasized over those of the photographers, Beat Mumenthaler and Eric Bergkraut. They are focused tightly, with narrow depth of field, to emphasize the weathering of flesh with age. These are not glamour shots.

Yet the subjects, whose stories are told in text and video, don’t appear fragile. What they endured and overcame, on their way to refuge in a country that didn’t want them, is inscribed on their faces. It’s also written on one arm whose tattooed number is not quite in focus and yet essential to the picture.

Revealed and The Last Swiss Holocaust Survivors Through April 29 at IA&A at Hillyer, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW. 202-338-0325.

Scott Pennington

The location of Otis Street Arts Project, secluded near CSX train tracks, is not conceptually ideal for its show of playful, large-scale work by Scott Pennington. The Baltimore artist’s constructions really belong along a busy street, where their vivid hues and blinking lights could beckon to passersby.

Pennington has a background as a cabinet and furniture maker, not an architect. Yet his goal is to devise “social spaces with a significant architectural presence.” The aesthetic is retro, distilled from such examples of 20th-century American architecture as amusement parks and used-car lots. The artist defiantly equips his parcels of simulated urbanity with incandescent lightbulbs rather than more efficient and versatile LEDs.

The equipment matters to Pennington, who controls flickering bulbs with two kinds of relays. One type is silent, and the other provides a chorus of clicks that harmonize with the motor that spins the wheel at the center of one piece. Instead of the murmur of the crowd, it’s the chatter of machines that visitors to this sideshow hear.

Drawn with either paint or light, the elementary shapes seem designed for signage. But the come-ons here are delivered only by shapes or colors, not by words. Although these sculptures pay tribute to commercialism, they rarefy it to something austere — or at least as austere as anything with pulsing green lights can be.

Scott Pennington Through April 28 at Otis Street Arts Project, 3706 Otis St., Mount Rainier. 202-550-4634.

Chris Trueman

When last he showed at Adah Rose Gallery, Chris Trueman was making energetic, brightly colored abstractions whose many abutting or overlapped lines were defined with masking tape and executed with spray paint. The resulting patterns — tight and hard-edged, yet undulating — combined the eye-teasing qualities of op art with more free-form gestures.

Some pictures in that mode are included in “The Color of the Universe Changes Over Time,” the Southern California artist’s current show. But the more recent works use the oscillating motifs as backdrops for brushwork that’s big and bold — and sometimes conspicuous by its absence. Trueman now paints on plastic-based paper, whose nonabsorbent surface allows him to remove areas of pigment to create negative space. The effect is a bit like painting on a tie-dyed fabric with a powerful bleach.

When they’re central to the composition, these frozen motions recall East Asian calligraphy. If the complex forms, layers and contrasts yielded by Trueman’s technique resemble a sort of universe, the reversed brushstrokes show the hand of its prime mover. It has the authority to both create and erase.

Chris Trueman: The Color of the Universe Changes Over Time Through April 28 at Adah Rose Gallery, 3766 Howard Ave., Kensington. 301-922-0162.

John Bodkin

In several immediately noticeable ways, the paintings in John Bodkin’s “Essence” are akin to pictures from the 1950s zenith of abstract expressionism. The Gallery B show demonstrates the veteran Annapolis artist’s strong color contrasts and his use of gestures, which are both intuitive and audacious. But Bodkin is no revivalist, and many of the strict theories that once attempted to explain and justify American abstraction hold no sway over him. There are traces of pop art and representation in his canvases.

The artist employs neon-bright hues, often contrasting them with pastels. Yet he works with oils, not acrylics, although he did turn to spray paint to add a dotted area to “Back Bay.” (He transferred the pattern from an old yoga mat.) Bodkin begins with drawings, and makes no attempt to hide that. The pencil grids used to scale up his sketches often show through the paint, and black permanent-marker lines underscore painted gestures.

Like many abstractionists, Bodkin sometimes hints at landscapes or organic forms. Shadows and modeling provide a sense of volume and depth, even to purely abstract shapes. A few paintings reveal their origins in actual if unheroic subjects, but these aren’t always clear. “Clothes Pile” is easily understood; the one inspired by the artist’s knee-replacement surgery is a little harder to decipher.

John Bodkin: Essence Through April 28 at Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., #E, Bethesda. 301-215-7990.