Emilie Brzezinski works with wood, and no matter how many chain saw and chisel marks she leaves on her rough-hewn sculptures, they never lose their connection to the living forest. Bernardi Roig works with polyester-resin casts of the human body and fluorescent lights, and his sculptures live in an entirely human dystopia, encumbered, exhausted and alienated. It’s hard to imagine two exhibitions as different in their materials and messages as Brzezinski’s show at the Kreeger Museum and Roig’s installation at the Phillips Collection.
I saw both on a fine Saturday afternoon and felt, paradoxically, that each one was exactly the sort of thing the art world needs, even though it’s impossible to imagine a single problem for which both Brzezinski and Roig are the answer. Brzezinski’s work transcends intellectualization or interpretation, and this kind of art often flummoxes critics. The meaning of the work is contained in the experience of the work, and often there’s little more to say than to describe the forms — large, earthy wooden bowls, gridlike arrangements of seemingly totemic wooden shafts, mute dialogues between monumental wood forms that may in some faint way adumbrate classic arrangements by sculptors such as Rodin.
But in a world in which we are constantly invited to encapsulate experience (check in with your friends!), measure our influence (how many likes or retweets?) and pin down the fluidity of time (post it to Instagram!), Brzezinski’s wooden forms are refreshingly disconnected from the business and distraction of contemporary life. They are resistant, even impenetrable, to the rational mind, and standing before them you may struggle to ward off impatience as they mutely refuse to do or say anything.
Among the works in the show, the weakest are those that the artist has coaxed too far into the realm of ideas or human purpose, especially the 2014 “Ukraine Trunk,” a large husk of maple in the stairwell of the Kreeger’s lower galleries. Unlike the other works in the show, this sculpture ventures into overt commentary, with the inner cell of the trunk covered with photographs of Ukrainians, apparently in homage to their struggle against the benighted and thuggish forces of Putinism. But while it’s easy to be sympathetic to the sentiment, the message is simply pasted on, literally, to the wooden form, limiting rather than enhancing its emotive power.
Among the strongest works are those that enact a sense of motion and isolation, inviting the viewer to move around them even as the forms themselves take on a sad sense of hermetic closure. Newly installed in the museum’s garden is the monumental 2013 “Lament,” three large hunks of red oak arranged in the perpetual solitude of standing in close proximity without touching. Circle around them and stare into the voids created by this arrangement, and you may have the uncanny sense that these remnants of the forest hide inside them some echo of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” perpetually moving in slow submission to fate. I was left hoping that the wood has not been treated in any way to preserve it, that this statue will slowly decay and crumble, which would complete its poetic mission.
Roig’s “NO/Escape” consists of six sculptures, several of them attached to, or set in front of, the Phillips Collection building on 21st Street NW. The Mallorcan artist’s intervention is announced by a cagelike form visible from one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, Massachusetts Avenue. The bars of this small prison have been bent apart as if someone has escaped from the harsh glare of the fluorescent light that hangs overhead. But if the human forms that Roig has attached to the museum’s outer walls are the escapees, they haven’t enjoyed much liberation. One of them is pinned against an alley wall by a white shaft of metal, suspending him in the air, his face pressed hard against the ugly glare of a lighted tube. This particular installation is titled “Acteon,” a reference to the Greek hero who ran afoul of Artemis and was consumed by his own hunting dogs.
The hunter as hunted, or man consumed by the forces he himself has unleashed, seems to apply to most of the other works in the exhibition, including a striking figure in the museum’s stairwell: “Man of Light,” a 2005 work that depicts a beleaguered elderly man dragging behind him over his shoulder a jumble of fluorescent lights.
Roig explains the work in terms of the vitiation of meaning in a world deluged by images: “Today we are living in an atmosphere saturated with images, but the experience that they produce has a low intensity,” he said in a news release. “We are subjected to light, a light that dissolves the outlines of things, a white light within which everything fluctuates.”
It’s not clear exactly what he means by “everything fluctuates,” which may refer to the flickering quality of some kinds of fluorescent light, or a sense of existential instability lurking underneath our most cherished and established ideas and ideals. I’ll take both: The power of these sculptures is the connections they suggest between light and enlightenment and the institutions derived from or transformed by the Enlightenment, including asylums, prisons, hospitals and morgues. What often began in the spirit of reform devolved into something darker and punitive, and the quality of the lights used in Roig’s sculpture conjures a variety of haunted, terrifying spaces.
Roig’s works inside the museum are particularly raw and confrontational. “An Illuminated Head for Blinky P. (The Gun)” is installed in a room full of drawings by Honoré Daumier, the French artist and social critic. Again, the same sad human form is present, this time standing in the doorway, barring access, and his mouth clamped on another iteration of the fluorescent light. Visitors are not invited into the room behind him, where the Daumier images cannot be deciphered in the relatively dim light. The reference to the German artist Blinky Palermo is obscure, but the sense of futility — even the futility of protest and criticism — is palpable.
It would do violence to both Brzezinski and Roig to attempt to connect their work in any substantial way. But seeing them sequentially on one day — first Brzezinski, then Roig — suggested two essential approaches to the world, both necessary and neither mutually exclusive of the other. One is about retreating inward, with energies focused on pure experience and the intensity of physical forms; the other is more engaged, more critical and more contrary, a dark parody of our own capacity for self-incarceration. Perhaps it is as simple as this: Roig depicts a world in which the visions of Brzezinski have been forgotten, abandoned or neglected.
“Intersections: Bernardi Roig NO/Escape” is on view at the Phillips Collection through March 8. For more information visit wapo.st/BernardiRoig.
“Emilie Brzezinski: The Lure of the Forest“ is on view at the Kreeger Museum through Dec. 27. For more information visit wapo.st/Brzezinski.