In the self-portraits of “Swim,” Charles Williams presents himself in goggles and other aquatic paraphernalia, his muscles taut and his skin burnished. The South Carolina artist, however, isn’t bragging about his prowess in the water. He actually has a powerful fear of it, in part because of a childhood incident in which he nearly drowned. The three series gathered in this Morton Fine Arts show are quite different, but all address Williams’s fraught relationship with the sea.
The largest works are realistic paintings of yellow sand and frothy surf under night skies. These are based on photos Williams took while wading in the water and experiencing — the show’s catalogue reports — “shallow breaths, a quickened heartbeat and trembling hands.” That anxiety is not conveyed by the pictures, which are calm and precisely rendered, even if the blackness above the water does indicate that this is no day at the beach.
Even darker are the small oils of waves at nighttime, entirely in black. The water’s motion and contours are depicted entirely by line and texture, and visible only when the light hits at a suitable angle. These paintings resemble engravings and bas-relief sculptures.
Although Williams is no impressionist, the self-portraits are a bit looser than his large surf pictures. Most of them are painted on Mylar, which lacks the absorbency of canvas and thus gives a more immediate appearance. Sheer white, apparently representing harsh sunlight, obliterates areas of the image. These ephemeral qualities, however, are countered by the strength of the artist’s features and form. Even when the subject is simply water and air, Williams’s style always feels substantial.
Swim: Charles Williams On view through Oct. 13 at Morton Fine Art, 1781 Florida Ave. NW. 202-628-2787. www.mortonfineart.com.
Driving across the United States with her camera, Noelle K. Tan doesn’t simply capture fleeting moments of now. The sepia-toned, black-and-white pieces in her show at Civilian Art Projects, “Expedition Journals: United States of America, Vol. 1,” are built from multiple images, linked thematically. Thus “Civil Rights” combines several notable locations from the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the sites and signifiers of the American West include giant sequoias, the Golden Spike National Historic Site and the half-buried sedans of Cadillac Ranch.
If there’s something of Kerouac in the local artist’s road-trip approach, Tan’s current work also is inspired by Diderot’s encyclopedia, a monument of the European Enlightenment. That opus was divided among history, poetry and philosophy, and Tan generally combines three images selected to embody those fields. Often the third element is smaller and exposed onto a liquid emulsion painted atop the other two pictures.
Even without considering the subject matter, these 12 collages hint at history. Tan is not one of those photographers who experiments with the medium’s earliest technologies, but she does shoot with film, a near-obsolete material. She manipulates the negatives in the darkroom, sometimes using overexposure to simulate high-contrast 19th-century photos. She also stains the paper to give the pictures the look of snapshots pulled from a drawer or a family album after untold decades.
Tan’s sensibility is contemporary, yet her technique makes visible her interest in gazing through the lens of the past.
Noelle K. Tan: Expedition Journals: United States of America, Vol. 1 On view through Oct. 24 at Civilian Art Projects, 4718 14th St. NW. 202-607-3804. www.civilianartprojects.com.
Many of the works in Wohlfarth Galleries’ “The Drawing Room” are figure sketches executed at a life-drawing class that meets in the nearby Brookland Arts Walk. These include Ilona Royce-Smithkin’s suite of 14 drawings, sensuously modeled in sanguine (red chalk) with occasional touches of blue, and Donald Davidson’s two starker renderings in brown with yellow highlights, which are technically not drawings since they’re watercolors. But several of the 11 participants are in another, less naturalistic class.
Lisa Farrell is showing charcoal botanical drawings and a set of pencil concept drawings for “Belle,” a children’s book about a butterfly who falls off a Dutch still life and must find her way back into the picture; there’s also one of the tale’s elegant finished illustrations. Dan Neidhardt suggests nature in a charcoal drawing of hive-like cells, almost glowing in an expanse of black. Most expansive are several large abstractions by Ellyn Weiss, who melds graphite and charcoal with acrylic paint. Pitting black scrawls against gray drips, these pictures are monochromatic in color but volcanic in gesture.
The Drawing Room On view through Oct. 24 at Wohlfarth Galleries, 3418 Ninth St. NE. 202-526-8022. www.wohlfarthgalleries.com.
Working mostly with reclaimed wood, Michelle Peterson-Albandoz constructs painting-like sculptures. Areas of raw and painted lumber alternate in patterns that recall the styles of artists who (usually) daubed rather than built. The Chicagoan’s latest show at Long View Gallery includes some simpler, higher-contrast assemblages, featuring brighter colors and elementary forms. There are diamonds, plus signs and X’s, clearly distinguished from their surroundings. Just as iconic, but gentler in hues, is a moon made from slats of brown-and white-painted wood.
Perhaps running low on salvaged lumber, Peterson-Albandoz has turned to American flags, which she places under wooden lattices. The banners are clearly legible, but pulse and shimmer through the frameworks, which alter the stars and stripes from different perspectives. In its boldness and directness, the artist’s recent work evokes 1960s pop and minimalism. Yet the subtle variations of color and texture in the repurposed wood remain essential to the work’s visual appeal, as the material does to its meaning: Peterson-Albandoz sees her art as endowing new life to something that once was alive.
Michelle Peterson-Albandoz On view through Oct. 25 at Long View Gallery, 1234 Ninth St. NW. 202-232-4788. www.longviewgallery.com.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.