As the movie-exhibition business is cannibalized by TVs, tablets and smartphones, there’s still one category of moving-image producers who insist on controlling the presentation: art-video makers such as Janet Biggs. Her “A Step on the Sun,” running at Conner Contemporary Art, can’t be reproduced on a pod or pad. Actually, the single-screen version of it (in Conner’s small media room) could be. But the centerpiece of this exhibition, “Kawah Ijen,” is the five-screen version showing in the main gallery. It puts the viewer at the center of images that move in and out of sync, and shift in place and mood. Sometimes the screens show the same thing; at other times, they offer contrasting pictures — or none at all. Watching the video is an active experience, as different elements compete for attention.
The bulk of the video was shot at Kawah Ijen, a volcano in Java, Indonesia, where poorly outfitted workers endure poisonous sulfur-dioxide gas while collecting sulfur crystals. (The site, featured in Michael Glawogger’s 2005 documentary, “Workingman’s Death,” is popular with photographers and filmmakers seeking worst-job-
ever images.) To heighten the unearthly vibe, Biggs has intercut footage of a weather-balloon launch by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The soundtrack also pits the terrestrial against the cosmic, mixing noises from the mine with stark string music.
The political aspect of the nine-minute video is ambiguous. Like Sebastiao Salgado, who makes alluring photographs of abject workers, Biggs risks submerging human struggles in epic visuals. The piece’s featured miner would probably prefer a state-of-the-art respirator to these artful views of blue water and yellow smoke. Whatever Biggs’s intended message, however, her compositions and editing are worthy of the video’s eerie location.
Wilmer Wilson IV’s “Domestic Exchange,” also at Conner, finds a congenial shade between the imprecise racial designations of “black” and “white.” It’s the brown of the common paper bag, associated with workingmen’s lunches and refreshment sipped on street corners. A photo of Wilson, nude from the waist up except for a necklace of inflated bags, shows that the paper is not a perfect match for his skin tone. But it’s pretty close, and when hung in clumps from the ceiling — an installation that resulted from an opening-night performance piece — the air-filled bags do suggest flesh and hair. Wilson is one of those artists who uses his body as his canvas, and the ordinary paper bag proves an elegant stand-in for him.
Like Biggs, Miori Inata is drawn to dramatic vistas. But the photographs in “American Landscapes,” the Japanese-bred artist’s small show at Hillyer Art Space, depicts an American West that’s largely untempered by human influence. Only one photo contains any artificial objects; the rest show exquisite natural forms and vivid colors. All are printed on washi (handcrafted Japanese paper), and most depict desert regions. One striking view of a stream snaking through grassland, made in Wyoming, features lush greens and blues that suggest Inata’s rainy homeland. But the principal hues are those of sand and crusty minerals, sometimes illuminated by light so hot that, when trapped inside caverns, it turns red.
Kate MacDonnell also photographs nature, but in an entirely different mode. She shoots suburban back yards, sometimes with a soft focus that turns everyday scenery hazy and mysterious. MacDonnell’s work predominates in “Time & Land,” a three-person show at Civilian Art Projects. The District artist’s photos, small and often grouped in pairs, comprise series with such lyrical titles as “across the back yards or time = movement across space.” The images are often keyed to a nimbus of light, whether glowing through trees or reflected on the ground. The simplicity of these photos, and the way they find transcendence in commonplace locales, seems almost, well, Japanese.
For its 15th anniversary, and to benefit Amnesty International, International Visions is presenting a 30-artist group show that considers worldly issues. Some of the pieces in “15” are inspired by recent events. Helen Zughaib’s “Arab Spring” coils a brightly colored flower pattern around a black shape that suggests a woman in a burqa; it’s part Victorian wallpaper design, part flower-power revolution. Lila Snow’s “Typhoon Ju Go” is a two-panel painting that memorializes the victims of the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan; Snow has inscribed the Roman numerals “XV” throughout the work, whose title also refers to that number (“ju go” is 15 in Japanese).
Other works are not tied to breaking news. Al Burts’s portrait of an overalls-wearing worker, “Husband Man,” is meticulously drawn on wood with a ballpoint pen; it balances the humble and the sublime in both subject and form. Ulysses Marshall’s “When You’ve Been Blessed,” a mix of painting and wood-block print, is almost calligraphic in its bold use of black pigment on white canvas. “Tired of It — How About You?” is a canvas-leaved book about the senseless deaths of African American youth, created by gallery founder Tim Davis. Not every work here is such a cri de coeur, but all underscore their craftsmanship with passion.
It might be unfair to call Scotch! apolitical, but the Texas artist certainly isn’t solemn. His paintings and assemblages, at alley-dwelling art-space the Fridge, have a gone-wild-at-the-yard-sale vibe. They features toys and Tom Cruise, strippers and “Star Wars” Stormtroopers, graffiti and banal mass-market landscapes to which the artist has added rude touches. (This is an NC-17 show.) The array is titled “Dissociative,” from dissociative identity disorder, the condition also known as multiple personality disorder. But it’s not Scotch! who’s split into pieces, although he does employ an alias for his found-art paintings. It’s American, and specifically Texan, society. The pop-culture pileup embraces everything from Hollywood sci-fi to the arcane spells and charms of Santeria — and so does Scotch! He may not take the whole mess very seriously, but he clearly loves it.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through May 5 at Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave. NE; 202-588-8750, www.connercontemporary.com .
on view through Saturday at Hillyer
Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW; 202-338-0680; www.artsandartists.org/hillyer.html .
on view through May 5 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW; 202-607-3804; www.civilianartprojects.com .
on view through May 5 at International Visions, 2629 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-234-5112; www.inter-visions.com .
on view through Sunday at the Fridge; 5161 / 2 Eighth St. SE (rear); 202-664-5151; www.thefridgedc.com .