One of the show’s most poignant images is a close-up of an electric organ, destroyed and abandoned in a church in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, the African American neighborhood swamped by Hurricane Katrina. Simpler emotionally but just as potent visually is a picture of a sousaphone’s shiny bell, which refracts a marching band musician’s uniform into an abstract red swirl.
The earliest photos here, dating from 1969 into the 1970s, are black-and-white vignettes from Manhattan streets (mostly in Harlem) and clubs. Soon Stewart expanded his range, shooting in Cuba and West Africa and making informal portraits of African American artists with varying degrees of formality: Alma Thomas poses solemnly in her studio, while a bathing-suited Romare Bearden is up to his thighs in the ocean.
Stewart didn’t switch to color — or at least start showing color pictures widely — until about 20 years ago. The change significantly expanded his style. While most of the color photos have documentary elements, some of them focus entirely on forms and hues. Jazz-club backdrops switch from gray to vivid blues and purples, and a more recent trip to Cuba yields a tight shot of a blue car whose weathered hood appears to have been scrubbed white by sunlight.
In other Stewart photos, such phenomena appeal to more than the eye. A second post-Katrina scene shows a partly submerged car between two modest frame houses. The car and the houses are white, and so is the reflection on the water, a patch of light shaped by the outlines of the houses into an inverted cross. The emblem is just a momentary glimmer, but Stewart frames it so it appears both eerie and apt.
Frank Stewart: Time Capsule Through Jan. 4 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW.
Mohrman & Cosgrove-Davies
Color is essential to Kathryn Mohrman’s study of a culture where people traditionally clad themselves from the jungle around them. “Papua New Guinea,” the artist’s Photoworks show, observes participants in a “sing-sing” where members of the South Pacific island’s 800 separate (and culturally distinct) tribes meet to celebrate their customs. They wear elaborate body paint, multiple necklaces strung with shells and crowns of grasses, flowers and feathers. One masked man sports long, pointed bamboo sheaths that turn his fingers into claws.
Mohrman documents these costumes, using simple compositions and adding no commentary. Only the very existence of these pictures acknowledges a wider world outside the indigenous rituals. Still, the photographer couldn’t resist one irony: A man applies face paint, checking his handiwork in a rearview mirror pulled from some unseen automobile.
Just a handful of film negatives yielded the many small pictures in “Photomorphs,” also at Photoworks. Mac Cosgrove-Davies prints the same image in various antique photographic formats, including cyanotype (or blueprint), oil, carbon and gum bichromate. (He may also draw it as well.) Sometimes presented in accordion-fold books, the variations here stretch across a wall that holds eight versions of a spindly tree and 16 of a beached fish. In an age when digital-media reproduction is blandly exact, Cosgrove-Davies relishes the subtle differences that result when copies are made via older physical formats.
Kathryn Mohrman: Papua New Guinea and Mac Cosgrove-Davies: Photomorphs Through Dec. 29 at Photoworks, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo.
Most of the people in Jay Peterzell’s “Now What” are male — some of them conspicuously so — and in crisis. A crazed and starkly naked figure is surrounded by pigs, who appear equally deranged. The biblical scenes include depictions of Abraham, about to sacrifice his son, and Adam, being expelled from Eden with Eve, the only woman in this Foundry Gallery show.
The gallery’s brief note on Peterzell’s work identifies some of the themes and characters but says nothing about the Takoma Park artist’s stylistic range. These large pictures are mostly oil paintings but include a few charcoal drawings. They range in mode from smeary expressionism to precise realism. Two portraits of composer Arnold Schoenberg depict him seated in a chair, but one is formal and mostly in shades of gray while the other is looser, jauntier and heavy on reds and pinks. Peterzell makes a point of the artist’s right to display the same thing from multiple perspectives.
Jay Peterzell: Now What Through Dec. 29 at Foundry Gallery, 2118 Eighth St. NW.
Braden & Francisco
The world is awash in electronic trash, a vast problem that is a small opportunity for such junkyard alchemists as Alex Braden and Emily Francisco. The two D.C. artists, one of whose previous collaborations featured dissected boomboxes, have outfitted a Brentwood Arts Exchange gallery with salvaged TV sets and VCRs of various vintages. The duo calls the installation “Constituents,” which could refer both to the battered audiovisual devices and to the shattered sounds and images they generate.
Some of the screens play video loops continuously; others come to life only when a VHS cassette is inserted by gallery goers, who can pick one or more from an array of doctored tapes. These feature people who are aware of being on camera yet aren’t at the crux of the action. Their glitchy images complement the aural static, but the latter seems paramount. “Constituents” would be nearly as effective in conjuring what the collaborators call “the ambiance of the in-between” if experienced with eyes shut. Indeed, the installation’s principal visual appeal comes not from its video, but from the gear itself, which suggests a late-20th-century equivalent of a classical ruin. Unlike in Pompeii, though, here tourists can hear as well as see the wreckage of the past.
Alex Braden and Emily Francisco: Constituents Through Dec. 28 at Brentwood Arts Exchange, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood.