The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the galleries: Where the celestial meets the nitty-gritty

Really Large Numbers, “Supernova,” 2017. (Really Large Numbers/VisArts)
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When stars explode, they expel elements that are ultimately repurposed as planets, human bodies and other stuff. “Stuff” is a key word for “Birth of a Star,” a science lesson and art installation that emphasizes the ordinariness of its raw materials. At a time when computers can slickly simulate anything a programmer might imagine, this VisArts exhibition relies on the likes of wood and various plastics.

That’s not just because Really Large Numbers, the team of Oregon’s Julia Oldham and Brooklyn’s Chad Stayrook, doesn’t have access to SpaceX-size budgets. The collaborative artists deliberately mix low- and high-tech, reduce cosmic phenomenon to minimalist gestures and give scientific data a human spin.

Despite its title, the Gibbs Street Gallery show represents four stages of stardom: protostar, red giant, supernova and black hole. The evolution begins with a small globe on a floor-mounted slab, the paths of asteroids projected around it. The giant is a massive red beach ball atop a stack of gilded wood boards. For a supernova, the duo presents a blue mesh circle standing on jagged white shards that suggest an explosion. The black hole is a dark, obliquely erected cylinder that appears to be pulling white mesh into it.

All four pieces incorporate animation, based on NASA imaging. But the artists hand-draw the cosmic movements and turn them into abstracted video loops. The universe is inexorable, yet Oldham and Stayrook will have their way with it, at least for now.

Rather than explore the heavens, John Schlesinger surveys VisArts’s smallest exhibition space, Common Ground Gallery. The sculptural installations of “ . . . The Player to Be Named Later” respond to the room (including its closet) while looking beyond the space to area trash dumps. Some of the materials are demolition waste such as rebar, whose twisted forms are complemented by squiggles of glowing neon tubes. Among the other ingredients are the Philadelphia artist’s photographs, weathered by soaking in resin, and paintings.

All the parts don’t fit together neatly, and they aren’t supposed to. Yet there are unifying factors: light and shade. The illumination from the neon and other sources turns the industrial scrap into an array of shadow puppets. The assemblages, affixed to the wall or suspended from the ceiling, dominate the space. Yet the essential action is behind and below them, where glares and flickers play on the white backdrops.

Really Large Numbers: Birth of a Star and John Schlesinger: . . . The Player to Be Named Later Through May 19 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville.

Jennifer R.A. Campbell

With their shiny surfaces and precise renderings, Jennifer R.A. Campbell’s paintings nearly qualify as photorealist. Yet the Boston-based artist’s detailed scenarios aren’t blank and chilly, as photorealist works usually are. “Roman Holiday,” Campbell’s Brentwood Arts Exchange show, juggles Bruegelesque earthiness, a pop-art enthusiasm for mainstream commercial culture and even a few comic-book touches.

If the exact significance of the word “Roman” in the show’s title is uncertain, Campbell does depict the contemporary equivalent of bread and circuses. In the diptych that provides the show’s title, a crowd at a carnival devours cotton candy and hot dogs while a dog licks a man’s head. There’s a whole menagerie of domestic animals in “The Good Citizen’s League,” which also includes a cake-filled table and two men grappling angrily on the ground.

Violence features, improbably, in three paintings set in narrow Japanese back streets lined by bars and restaurants. In “Red Light Blueviolet,” cartoon stars appear under the posterior of a woman who has been literally kicked out of a joint. Campbell has the skills of a Renaissance master, tempered by a playful taste for biff bang pow.

Jennifer R.A. Campbell: Roman Holiday Through May 18 at Brentwood Arts Exchange, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood.

Pamela Crockett

The vivid colors and shimmering facets of Pamela Crockett’s oil paintings are not meant to be glamorous. Not exactly, anyway. The Baltimore artist’s Honfleur Gallery show, “The Dance of Decay,” portrays the decomposition of organic matter, mostly vegetal. Yet the large, highly detailed pictures find beauty in rot.

“These delicate remains of life,” declares Crockett’s statement, “reflect both the fragility and the vitality of the earth and its oceans.”

Despite that big-world perspective, the artist focuses on the small stuff, its dancing originally observed under a magnifying glass. Two ragged anchovies face away from each other, and the guts of a dying bloom droop toward the ground. While the depictions are largely realistic, Crockett emphasizes geometry and pattern. “Cartesian Vortices (Onions)” ponders vegetables past their prime but also highlights gleaming skins and parallel bowed lines. In these snapshots of messy metamorphosis, some forms appear eternal.

Pamela Crockett: Dance of Decay Through May 25 at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Rd. SE.

Tactile Hallucinations

The show may not provoke visions, but Cody Gallery’s “Tactile Hallucinations” does offer an array of engrossing textures. Four of the five artists work with textiles, and Barb Smith is exhibiting traditional ceramics and enigmatic mixed-media pieces that incorporate wooden stands.

Roxana Alger Geffen, who also has a solo show at the nearby Arlington Arts Center, makes collages that are mostly fabric. There’s a length of aluminum tubing, however, at the center of her most amusing piece, “Pipe With Long Hair.”

Alex Ebstein carves PVC yoga mats, among other things, into 3-D forms she arranges on wooden panels. These abstractions aren’t paintings, yet some of the shapes resemble enlarged brushstrokes.

Samantha Bittman and Natan Lawson paint on fabric, producing geometric motifs that are hypnotic if not hallucinatory. Whereas Bittman works with cloth she weaves herself, Lawson takes a more mechanical approach. He applies pigment via a computer-controlled plotter. With their right angles and their grids of pixel-like nubs, both artists’ creations can appear computer-generated, but their look is softened by the fabric’s homey qualities. Like the artists of Really Large Numbers, Bittman and Lawson have found a nice perch between the technological and the handmade.

Tactile Hallucinations Through May 18 at Cody Gallery, Marymount University, Ballston Center, 1000 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington.