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In the galleries: Three local artists explore the transient nature of identity

Victor Ekpuk’s “Mickey on Broadway,” on view in “Transient Identity: Figure & Form,” at Brentwood Arts Exchange. The group show was curated by University of Maryland art students. (Victor Ekpuk/Brentwood Arts Exchange)

Nigerian-bred D.C. artist Victor Ekpuk often uses glyphs derived from an ancient African writing system. His “Mickey on Broadway,” an expansive five-panel collage-painting on display at Brentwood Arts Exchange, combines those characters with symbols that most people can read more easily: plastic plates shaped like the head of Disney’s trademark mouse.

Ekpuk’s red-white-and-blue African and American hybrid is one of the most striking offerings in “Transient Identity: Figure & Form,” which also presents works by two other foreign-born local artists, Honduran emigre Wilfredo Valladares and Brazil-bred Lorenzo Cardim. The show was curated by University of Maryland art students directed by professor Jason Kuo.

Valladares often plays on the primal significance of food, fire and the human face. Here, his sculptural assemblages include a skillet whose surface bulges to reveal a visage and that is flanked by charred rolling pins. In a large floor piece, multiple faces are connected by a canoe-shaped metal construction mounted on partly burned wooden slats. Among a series of masks made of bronze, aluminum and cast iron are two with headdresses festooned with corn, historically Central America’s main crop. These instant artifacts possess a contemporary sensibility, yet also a mythic quality.

Cardim pays homage to Dandra dos Santos, a transgender woman who was brutally killed last year in Brazil. The artist, who often works in wood, made two paper-on-glass collages in which cutout flowers surround a female figure, but also a simple pine wheelbarrow, suggesting a coffin despite the festive purple and gold embellishments.

With their intricate pictographic texts, Ekpuk’s paintings can spin the viewer’s eye in multiple directions at once. But his contributions to this show are impressively vivid and direct, with details that emerge after closer inspection. Although the two massive, outlined heads of “Conversations” are inscribed with glyphs, the red and blue shapes register immediately. Ekpuk probably won’t ever design a corporate emblem, but there’s a bit of Madison Avenue savvy in his cross-cultural iconography.

Transient Identity: Figure & Form Through Aug. 11 at Brentwood Arts Exchange, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood.


The windowless galleries of Hemphill Fine Arts are sometimes plunged into near blackness, the better to showcase work meant for the shadows. The current “CMD + F” (from the Mac command for “find”) includes work by three area artists who employ up-to-date technology to pit light vs. dark and vivid colors against neutral tones.

James Huckenpahler’s digital prints cross-fertilize portraits from the Brady-Handy collection of Civil War-era photography with images from the artist’s computer. All but one of the six pictures feature a pool of a single bright color that seeps into silver-gray regions. Whatever remains of the 19th-century pictures is decayed and distorted, evoking history’s retreat and analog media’s vulnerability.

Tommy Bobo’s projections are all candy-colored light, splashing on the wall and refracted by small objects mounted there. Four of them flitter more or less in place, while one features computer-controlled illumination that draws more dynamic patterns. Although the results aren’t three-dimensional, they have a near-physical presence that verges on the holographic.

Also included is Rachel Schmidt’s “Tension,” previously shown at VisArts in Rockville. It projects video the artist shot during a Taipei residency above ice-floe-like constructions, hugging the floor and illuminated from below. Bird sounds and footage of a mountain path root the piece in nature.

CMD + F Through Aug. 10 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW.

Guy Jones

When pen-and-ink draftsman Guy Jones explores the woods, he’s not looking just for images. Like many of his nature-inspired peers, the artist incorporates organic objects into his work. But there’s nothing so simple as a stone, a stick or a bird’s nest in his Art League Gallery show, “Drawing Energy — The Logic of Madness.” Instead, Jones repurposes animal skulls, a turtle shell, a large gourd and such. These he employed both sculpturally and, along with white panels, as surfaces for drawing.

A Maryland native of Cherokee heritage, Jones credits his outlook in part to studies with a Cherokee shaman. But there’s more than a little European influence in his precise and detailed style, and also in his fairy-tale scenarios where human and animal mingle: A mantis towers above a person’s face, and a nun stands among snails that are nearly her size. The 3-D pieces include a goat skull embellished with a dragon and a deer’s jawbone that functions as both a frame and part of the composition in a rendering of a man’s face, his mouth hidden behind a frog.

Such combinations might not be the stuff of madness, but they are surely surreal. Rather than express alienation from the natural world, though, the drawings reveal “a deep spiritual kinship” with it, according to the gallery’s note. Jones gives dead things a new form of life, strange yet vital.

Guy Jones: Drawing Energy — The Logic of Madness Through Aug. 5 at the Art League Gallery, Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria.

Dee Levinson

The paintings in Dee Levinson’s Touchstone Gallery show, “Religions of the World,” began with an epiphany, but it wasn’t a sectarian one. Visiting Rome in 1991, the Arlington artist was struck by the forms and lines of the abundant public sculpture. Levinson works from photographs to depict these and other statues in a hard-edge style that emphasizes depth and modeling. Rather than simulate the tones of marble and bronze, though, the painter uses bold complementary colors, pitting red against green or purple against yellow. To this pop-art clash, she often adds gold, which denotes holiness in both Western and Eastern traditions.

Since Levinson’s inspiration derives from travels in Europe, the majority of her subjects are Christian. But she also paints heroic and godly figures from Judaism, Buddhism and the ancient Egyptian pantheon, as well as an abstract Islamic design. The images are not devotional, and can even be ever-so-slightly heretical. The artist’s version of an Eastern Orthodox icon depicts Russian-born Touchstone director Ksenia Grishkova — not a saint or a goddess, perhaps, but exalted by Levinson’s neon-hued neoclassicism.

Dee Levinson: Religions of the World Through July 30 at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW.