To a new crop of artists, nature is most compelling at its scruffiest. There are no exotic orchids, sacred lotuses or colorful sunflowers in “Perennials,” a six-artist exhibition at Montgomery College’s King Street Gallery. Featured, instead, are the sort of plants that might be found in a vacant lot in Brooklyn, which is home to four of the participants.
There’s a lot of actual foliage in the show, accompanied by pamphlets about topics such as seed libraries and urban weeds. (The latter guide was published by the EPA — the Environmental Performance Agency.) Also included are photos of “Nonnatives” by Baltimore’s Suzy Kopf and “mug shots” of “180 or so plants I’ve met” by the District’s Valerie Wiseman.
Christopher Kennedy photographs weeds tied with twine to their everyday city and suburban neighbors: bottles, cans and other man-made junk. Similarly themed are Emmaline Payette’s cairns of “Stoned Rocks,” which are actually black plastic bags stuffed tightly with more throwaway bags until they resemble boulders and which are placed amid plants and twigs.
The perennial blooms not with flowers, but with metaphors. It represents artistic virtues such as growth, independence and survival. In addition, the contrast between pampered houseplants and disregarded weeds is analogous to societal divisions.
Despite such symbolism, “Perennials” is as much science project as art exhibition. Kennedy was an environmental engineer, and Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco’s Next Epoch Seed Library intends to preserve plants as living things, not just emblems. At a time of rapid ecological change, these artists propose, flora itself is more significant than any artistic interpretation of it.
Perennials Through March 9 at King Street Gallery, Montgomery College, 930 King St., Silver Spring. 240-567-5821. cms.montgomerycollege.edu/arts-tpss/exhibitions.
There’s only so much that can be done with a dot, but that doesn’t seem to have limited Thomas Downing. In the American University Museum’s “Thomas Downing and the Sublime Decorative,” the variations range from 17-foot-wide epics to a few white-and-black dabs lined up neatly on a brown paper bag — an amusing stand-in for the raw canvas often used by the 1960s Washington colorists who were Downing’s peers.
The painter, who lived from 1928 to 1985, often positioned simple forms symmetrically on white fields. But sometimes he covered the surface with soft, partly overlapping blots, or placed just a few circles on a brightly hued background, as in “France Blue,” one of this selection’s most striking works.
Relinquishing the dot, Downing made pictures with hard-edge, interlocking figures, sometimes on canvases shaped to emulate the shapes painted on them. The uncharacteristic “Helix 13,” from 1964, arranges swirls of yellow and two shades of red in a manner that might be called pop-op. The possibilities weren’t endless, but they were more than enough for one artist’s career.
Thomas Downing and the Sublime Decorative Through March 11 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/museum.
With their simplified humans and strong black outlines, Anna U. Davis’s collage-paintings look a bit like cartoons. Yet as displayed in the House of Sweden’s “Witnesses,” her mosaic-like pictures also suggest stained-glass windows. That’s partly because this array includes “Tripping,” a speculative cityscape that melds Washington and European landmarks, placing cathedrals near the latest generation of Metro train. But it’s also because of the size of the artworks — seven are eight feet wide — and their regular spacing in the roomy gallery.
Rather than depict sacred stories, the Swedish-bred artist prefers topical ones, many of them personal. Davis is married to a Swedish-born African American, so she’s concerned with racial identity; her gray-skinned “Frocasians” defy categories. Other themes include immigration and the status of women. In “Shark-cuteri,” a female body lies atop a pile of meat, its parts labeled as if by a butcher. Davis is a breast-cancer survivor, an experience that is probably reflected in “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” whose scenario appears to combine medical and cosmetic surgery. For the subjects of Davis’s art, society frequently has its scalpels out.
Anna U. Davis: Witnesses On view through March 11 at the House of Sweden, 2900 K St. NW. 202-536-1500. bit.ly/2CmOt9v.
The artworks in Kesha Bruce’s “Weapons for Spiritual Warfare” are a form of ancestor worship. Each one of the tradition-rooted pieces in her Morton Fine Art show is “an answered prayer,” writes the African American artist, who divides her time between the United States and France.
Most of these collage-paintings are small and consist of four rough-edged fabric squares daubed with simple geometric forms. The X, Y, + and # shapes are elemental, but rendered loosely to give evidence of the artist’s hand, as well as offer a sense of spontaneity. The largest and most complex are “The Sky Opened for Her,” which is cross-shaped and fringed with streamers, and “Between Starshine and Clay,” whose top third consists of overlapping black squares. The former resembles a ceremonial robe, while the latter evokes a sweeping view of a village under a nighttime sky — a universe conjured from tattered scraps and unstudied gestures.
Kesha Bruce: Weapons for Spiritual Warfare Through March 7 at Morton Fine Art, 1781 Florida Ave. NW. 202-628-2787. mortonfineart.com.
Visitors to Casey Magrys’s WAS Gallery exhibition should probably begin in the backroom, which holds the video that gives the show its name. “Recluse” is a split-screen piece that observes the subtle play of light through various portals. The Maryland artist likes to look at and into, but also to block and conceal. Her idea is to fix the viewer’s gaze on “that thing that is out of reach,” according to a gallery note.
The rest of the show is devoted to abstract collage-paintings that Magrys calls “redactions.” Nearly all are on paper, layered in various ways, although a few employ sheets of clear plastic. The artist often masks parts of the composition or obscures it with ragged patches of pigment such as the vivid blue in the largest of the mostly untitled pictures. But such bold touches are rare in this work, which is quite definite about appearing tentative.
Casey Magrys: Recluse Through March 10 at WAS Gallery, 5110 Ridgefield Rd., Bethesda. 202-361-5223. wasgallery.com.