With their bold lines, busy compositions and intense reds and blacks, Carlos Luna’s paintings look as though they should be spray-painted on a wall. Yet they also pack enough mythic content to befit some sort of temple. The Miami-based Cuban artist, whose “Green Machine” is at the American University Museum, is both a modernist and classicist, with twists of cubism and underground-comics grotesquerie.
The mixed-media drawing-paintings were made on paper finished with a wax-and-oil varnish, to both preserve the image and give it a dramatic sheen. Also included are tapestries and images on steel squares, embellished with patinas and aluminum overlays. The metal pieces isolate folkloric emblems such as the horse and the rooster, which also feature in Luna’s more complex pictures.
If these are everyday features of rural life, the artist reaches into Greco-Roman fables for figures such as Perseus, holding the freshly severed head of a male Medusa. That vignette is named “Mr. C.O. Jones,” a title that — like many of Luna’s — is incorporated into the crowded design.
Some pictures are so stuffed they overflow, with complementary patterns splashed on the wall behind them. Yet the essence of Luna’s style is his X-ray vision. His creatures are often silhouettes that outline bodily frameworks. The figures pivot on visible joints and circular forms, or reveal stars burning inside. The show’s title refers to a forest considered sacred in Afro-Cuban lore, but Luna’s primary landscape is interior.
Elzbieta Sikorska, whose “Time Stands Still” is also at the museum, takes an alternative path through the forest. Her large-scale drawings depict woodlands yet are as loose as they are detailed. Wings, schematic diagrams, and human figures and body parts all figure in these pictures, but central is the way the Poland-bred Silver Spring artist transforms gestures into roots, trunks and downed branches — and then back again.
While Sikorska’s palette is mostly wintry, “Nature, Culture, Divine” shimmers with gold and silver, and others seethe with red. The visceral “Fire” gives a sense of uncontainable action, as though its crimson strokes are about to engulf the blue-heavy “Steps” next to it. Yet many of the pictures have a contemplative mood. As the show’s title suggests, they offer quiet moments amid the maelstrom of history and memory.
Green Machine: The Art of Carlos Luna and Time Stands Still: Elzbieta Sikorska On view through May 28 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/museum.
In 1972, Richard Nixon’s campaign pitched his reelection with the slogan “Now More Than Ever.” A local artists collective, NoMuNoMu, has borrowed that motto for its show at Washington Project for the Arts. Neither Nixon nor the current president is a motif, but the work is strongly political.
Although much of it involves text, sometimes the statement is made simply with color. Ani Bradberry’s “Preventive Patrol” is two thin blue lines of neon, and Adrienne Gaither’s “I Don’t See Color” is a hard-edge, color-block painting in pinkish and yellowish shades of “white” skin tones. Aaron Maier uses black fabric to simulate charring on an orange-painted stick, evoking fiery destruction from Aleppo to Baltimore.
Among Justin Poppe’s manga-style illustrations on birch panels is one that depicts drug abuse and police violence; he also contributed a vase of flowers with a pennant that reads “City of Flint Water Dept.” Gaither tore pages from books about oppression, such as “1984” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” concealing most of the content behind photos and bars of color. Joseph Orzal printed words on granite to make the messages look like wisdom of the ancients, but the texts include ads for racially segregated housing and a report on racist police conduct in Ferguson, Mo.
Orzal’s stone tablets exemplify the group’s “call to action” against “a delusional framework of a ‘greatness’ that never was.”
NoMuNoMu Presents Now More Than Ever On view through May 27 at Washington Project for the Arts, 2124 Eighth St. NW. 202-234-7103. wpadc.org.
With society’s essential structure called into question by the carnage of World War I, Dadaists began cutting and pasting at random. That project has been revived, 24/7, at 17th and L streets NW, where James Huckenpahler’s “Desktop” summons, overlaps and disperses words and pictures across two video screens. It’s a “generative” piece, which means it uses algorithms to yield ever-changing, never-repeating combinations.
The local artist calls the ingredients of this collage “digital ephemera.” The mix is heavy on text, mostly in English but with a fair amount of Japanese. Single words and commercial logos and slogans abound, along with movie titles. Jean-Luc Godard and D.C. punk bands seem to be favorites, but so are the products and slogans of American drugstores.
The mix suggests layered graffiti without Day-Glo hues. Perhaps in homage to those who first assembled newspaper cuttings into art, Huckenpahler employs muted colors and ragged forms. His video technology simulates torn, smudged and weathered paper. Hemphill Fine Arts, whose storefront space displays the piece, suggests that “like the subconscious, it reveals itself best” after dark. But “Desktop” appears as much historical as psychological.
Desktop: James Huckenpahler On view through May 27 at Hemphill at 1700 L St. NW. 202-234-5601. hemphillfinearts.com.
Unlike “Desktop’s” potentially eternal digital files, the art in Target Gallery’s “Ephemera” not only depicts the fleeting, but in some cases is volatile itself. The 22 artists use materials such as rust, beeswax and shark egg sacs to represent a precarious universe, adding traditional conservable materials to the mix.
France’s Maxime Girardin, the only international participant, subtly superimposes the image of a tree on a single leaf in delicate, antique-looking photographs. Lilach Schrag cunningly uses looping video to depict the creation — or is it destruction? — of her “Brown Golem,” a humanoid begat from the earth as in Jewish myth.
The show’s centerpiece is Hanna Vogel’s hanging “Was Might Be,” a delicate construction of wire and paper pulp that resembles a large wasp’s nest. Nearby is Rae Broyles’s “Glacier I,” which layers wax and cheesecloth atop aquatic blue paint. Like so much of this work, these pieces evoke natural phenomena that are both formidable and fragile.
Ephemera On view through May 21 at Target Gallery, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-746-4590. torpedofactory.org/target.