Polly Townsend. “Untitled (Badlands 1),” on view at Cultural DC's Flashpoint “Slower Than This” exhibit. (Copyright Polly Townsend/Courtesy of CulturalDC)

Why do people paint mountains? Because they’re there, of course. But “why” isn’t the primary question posed by Polly Townsend’s “Slower Than This.” The Flashpoint show is more concerned with “how.” Of the 11 pieces on display, only one is a finished painting. The others include photos, a graph, a video and an accordion-foldout book of drawings. All were inspired, directly or indirectly, by Townsend’s travels in areas of dry, rocky summits, including Kashmir, Western China and unidentified Badlands (possibly Utah).

The sketchbook progresses from simple outline renderings to complex shading and modeling. It’s just one way for Townsend to demonstrate how her paintings develop. The British artist, who was formerly based here in Washington, also tallied her emotions while working in her studio, unhappily distant from the vistas that inspire her. The resulting graph, “5 a Day for 5 Days,” consists of peaks and valleys. Equally playful is “Portal 1,” a 53-second video loop in which a red-coated painter (a visual reference to Corot) slips from a landscape into a drawing, then through a studio and a painting and back to the original site.

Townsend’s paintings aren’t documentary. She does sometimes depict human intrusion into forbidding regions; there’s a small structure in the foreground of “Untitled (Badlands),” the show’s one complete painting. But her canvases are not studiously realistic, and they sometimes verge on the abstract. With their tan and pinkish contours, these mountainscapes can also suggest the contours of the human body. Although “Slower Than This” emphasizes the process over the result, the exhibition is ultimately one artist’s attempt to understand her own fascination with remote realms — their form, severity and indifference to mankind. So why does Polly Townsend paint mountains? “I can’t explain my attraction to these landscapes,” she admits.

Summer Sculpture

If the Watergate Gallery’s “2012 Summer Sculpture” show is a little less overwhelming than last year’s, that’s partially just because it contains fewer pieces. (The exhibition is sharing space with “Portraits of a Self-Determining Haiti,” Regine Romain’s large, bold color photographs taken just after the 2010 earthquake.) But another difference is that much of this year’s work is delicate — in appearance, if not material. Some of the sculptors work in metal but shape it into vines and petals. Sam Noto’s contributions include “A Journey,” a tangle of steel tendrils, and “Inner Peace,” whose curling sprouts shimmer with mutating colors. Dalya Luttwak’s “There are no black flowers #2” renders flower and root forms in copper and steel, with a sharp metal pistil framed by a bloom’s red-painted interior. It’s substantial, yet elegant.

The array also includes multiple works by Alonzo Davis, whose nature-evoking pieces actually feature a substance that grows out of the ground: bamboo. His assemblages include ones that use decorated bamboo staves both as rectangular frames and oblique accents, around and atop works on painted or patterned backdrops. Davis also makes “power poles,” totemic bamboo staffs that are embellished and sometimes gilded, as though they are for a king or shaman.

The show’s standout, both stylistically and emotionally, is Adam Nelson’s “Cloud of Rocks,” a clear plastic box that’s bulging, deformed and peppered with small chunks of asphalt. The piece was inspired by the shards of torn-up road thrown by Egyptian protesters at the beginning of their uprising. So the piece is an ode to freedom, as well to the symbolic reuse of utterly ordinary materials. But the box is also intriguing in form, because its bulges and imperfections present a wealth of shadows. Nelson’s sculpture is hardly a traditional monument, yet it boasts as many facets as any equestrian statue.

Inside Outside

The moody portraits of “Inside Outside,” local photographer Gabriela Bulisova’s show at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, are artfully made. But the purpose of this show is not to demonstrate the artist’s feel for
light, shadow and composition. The eight photographs tell a story, hinted by the way many of the subjects are framed in tight spaces by doors or windows. These are men who have been inside — incarcerated, like so many people of color in the United States.

In her statement, Bulisova writes that three out of four black men in the District are expected to serve jail time at some point in their lives. (The statistic comes from a 2011 report by the Council for Court Excellence.) That big picture is nearly inconceivable, so Bulisova focuses on specific stories and individual lives. Each photograph is accompanied by first-person testimony, and the show also includes a video in which some of the subjects’ voices are heard. One man explains why he had already turned to serious crime at 12: “Nobody explained to me that you can have a better life.”

The images are excerpted from the photographer’s book, also titled “Inside Outside.” The volume’s photos are more diverse than the ones on the gallery walls, offering a wider perspective of these ex-convicts and their families. But these eight are a powerful introduction to the subject: They’re some of the starkest pictures in Bulisova’s study of an appallingly stark reality.

new. (now).

The latest crop of young artists selected for the Hamiltonian Gallery’s annual fellowships introduce themselves with “new. (now).” — a show whose title resists being used in a conventionally punctuated sentence. The six participants, all recent MFAs, offer videos, collages, photographs and a fake historical marker denoting where a guy lost his virginity. Did I mention these artists are young?

The tyranny of fashion is one theme: Milana Braslavsky photographs women with handbags over their heads, and Annette Isham shoots the travels of one amazonian in absurdly towering platform shoes. Process is also big: Billy Friebele makes video-derived “drawings” of paths walked through cities, while Jerry Truong shows both a large abstract patterned pencil drawing and a video of an artist (presumably him, and apparently naked) who’s executing such a drawing. And then there’s Timothy Thompson, the historical-marker parodist. He also contributed “Twist to Open,” a cast-iron twist-top manhole cover. It’s silly, but likably so.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Polly Townsend: Slower Than This

on view through Sept. 15 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/flashpoint-gallery.

Summer Sculpture

on view through Sept. 22 at Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW; 202-338-4488; www.watergategalleryframedesign.com.

Inside Outside

on view through Sept. 28 at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, 202-365-8392, www.vividsolutionsdc.com.

new. (now).

on view through Sept.15 at Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Suite 101; 202-332-1116; hamiltoniangallery.com.