Local artist Peter Waddell has pursued a calling in a field so venerable that it has virtually disappeared: historical painting. Yet the two mammoth Waddell canvases at the hub of “Eye of the Bird: Visions and Views of D.C.’s Past” at the George Washington University Museum aren’t just whimsical or self-indulgent anachronisms. They are, in a sense, conceptual art. The exhibition contains vintage documents and artifacts whose significance flows both into and out of the paintings.
The New Zealand-bred Waddell is fascinated by his adopted city’s early years, which he has depicted in various contexts. His phenomenally detailed new pictures are imagined aerial views of the Washington planned by Peter (a.k.a. Pierre) Charles L’Enfant. “The Indispensable Plan” visualizes the orderly, European-style capital the Frenchman expected, complete with such un-American features as an official national church. “The Village Monumental” depicts our town as it actually (and unimpressively) was in 1825, the year L’Enfant died.
The first landscape, viewed from a bluff in what is now Arlington County, is so speculative as to be modern, even if its details are impeccably 19th century. It’s a civic-minded fiction, a reverie that’s orderly rather than elusive. The second vista, from the same vantage, also is conjectural, but only partly. It’s drawn from both visual and narrative accounts, and Waddell appears confident enough of its accuracy to place a surrogate figure in the foreground, apparently sketching the scene.
Accompanying the paintings are some of the objects that inform them. A vintage dress echoes one seen in “The Village Monumental” — or rather, the picture echoes the garment. Nearby are 19th-century maps, and Waddell’s own topographic model, simulating the hills and hollows not shown on street diagrams (and that inspired L’Enfant). Video screens offer close-ups and explanations of certain features in the pictures, which are best perused through the magnifying glasses that are helpfully provided.
Waddell’s skill as a painter equals his impressive diligence and patience, but the artist’s goal is not direct self-expression. He subordinates all of that to L’Enfant’s design, and to a collective one. His “Eye of the Bird” offers two versions of an American dream.
Eye of the Bird: Visions and Views of D.C.’s Past Through Dec. 23 at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st St. NW.
Cross MacKenzie Gallery’s “Flock” doesn’t take Peter Waddell’s kind of bird’s eye view, but it does address more themes than are suggested by its subtitle, “Beloved, Treasured, Threatened, Dead and Extinct Birds.” The five-artist show encompasses paintings, prints, photographs and ceramics, as well as politics.
The inspiration was Liza Kirwin’s miniatures of all the birds of Maryland, painted while compulsively consuming the latest from MSNBC. Each of the simple portraits, which fill the gallery’s longest wall, has an inscription on its back, reflecting the news at the moment the picture was made.
Also included are a few of Cindy Kane’s paintings of extinct birds, shown at the gallery in 2016, and some of Miranda Brandon’s beautiful but sobering photos of birds that had fatal encounters with glass buildings, seen earlier this year at VisArts.
Penelope Gottlieb updates John James Audubon’s prints of birds, wrapping chains around the images of creatures the naturalist killed before documenting. She also places the birds amid invasive plant species whose spread is another threat to nature caused by human heedlessness.
Walter McConnell renders birds and plants in porcelain, using the sort of kitschy figurines he employs to construct large, complex monuments. In a bit of conceptual recycling, some of the blooms are modeled on the bottoms of water bottles — a different but no less pervasive species of invasive pest.
Flock: Beloved, Treasured, Threatened, Dead and Extinct Birds Through Jan. 4 at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
Tools, furniture and bobby pins are among the raw materials in “From Here to Elsewhere: Kindled by Things,” a five-artist show at MPA at Chain Bridge Gallery. The import of these found objects varies. Some hold personal history, while others were chosen purely for their shapes or materials. But all were made for one purpose and have been turned into something else.
Maria Karametou weaves bobby pins into large wall hangings that resemble circuit boards as much as quilts. Suzi Fox carves teeth and fingers into hand tools, so that hammers and levels come to resemble parts of the people who wield them. Evan Reed incorporates an abandoned table into one of his skeletal pieces, which outline in wood the shapes of houses and humans.
Furniture also is central to the modestly surreal assemblages of Ruth Lozner, whose offerings include three chairs nestled together into a single piece. As titles such as “Nana’s Bureau” indicate, Lozner isn’t interested in objects simply for their forms. Family heritage dwells in these wooden relics.
Most of Betsy Packard’s pieces are made of old clothes, knitted into nonfunctional boxes and quilts. These are intriguing, but they don’t preserve the originals’ character as strongly as “Vessel,” a blue porcelain bowl cloaked in a thick layer of cement. Trapped inside the rough coating yet still visible, the delicate bowl represents loss as poignantly as any of this array’s repurposed things.
From Here to Elsewhere: Kindled by Things Through Dec. 22 at MPA at Chain Bridge Gallery, 1446 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean.
Nothing is too small, or too immaterial, to elude Joseph Keiffer’s eye. There are landscapes in the realist painter’s show at Gallery Neptune & Brown, “Traveling Light,” but more common are still lifes: a plate of gummy candy, playfully teetering stacks of cups and small teapots, a typewriter scrolled with a sheet of paper that contains the artist’s signature. These recently made pictures tend to be modest in scale and subject, but with a grand intent: “to convey a sense of being there,” according to Keiffer’s remarks.
The show’s title has a double meaning. It refers to the artist’s frequent travels to Manhattan, Maine and Upstate New York, where he paints on location. It also alludes to Keiffer’s mastery of natural light, whether distilled into a glowing moon in a midnight-blue sky or diffused as in a picture that depicts a room with a door opened, as though to beckon sunbeams in. Only one of these pictures features any people, but all of them are testaments to human vision.
Joseph Keiffer: Traveling Light Through Dec. 29 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW