Johnson doesn’t hide her sources. Also on exhibit are the vintage magazine pages from which she clipped the spokesmodels and products. She collages them to make large prints, over which she paints. The renderings are faithful to the originals, but with looser backgrounds that suggest wallpaper or wood grain — or paper towels. The results suggest a mash-up of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the Saturday Evening Post. But that’s not the whole story.
The artist, who teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is both inspired by and skeptical of Dada and surrealism. Johnson sees ironic parallels in how women were represented by mostly male 20th-century artists and advertising executives. The surrealists’ female muse was “sometimes literally depicted like an inanimate object or dehumanized to be acted upon,” she notes in her statement. Her work, Johnson continues, portrays “cyborgs . . . who are both consumers and . . . the consumed at the same time.”
“The Hall of Portraits” makes explicit reference to Marcel Duchamp’s 1915-23 “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” an enigmatic glass sculpture whose imagery includes various mechanisms. By design, Johnson’s portraits are the exact height of Duchamp’s piece.
The show has one other component: Such actual items as a suitcase, a coffee carafe and a telephone-operator headset. These objects, mostly made between the late 1940s and the early ’70s, may be obsolete, yet have contemporary relevance. The seductive curves of the Western Electric Sculptura “doughnut” phone, which debuted a half-century ago, has much the same appeal as the tapered lines of the iPhone. Both are mass-manufactured products with the juju of a fetish object.
Sue Johnson: Hall of Portraits From the History of Machines Through Jan. 3 at Gibbs Street Gallery, VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville.
An accomplished copyist of great artworks, Bradley Stevens has long specialized in painting them in their natural habitat: arrayed in the hushed galleries of major museums where they’re being perused by visitors. The local artist’s pictures are highly realistic, if not always literal, and showcase a remarkable ability to replicate a famous painting as the visitor might encounter it, whether from a distance or at an extreme angle. This skill is well demonstrated in Stevens’s Zenith Gallery show, “Intimacy & Isolation.” But, as that title suggests, the artist means to convey mood as well as actuality.
Some of the impetus for these paintings came from the 2019 Edward Hopper show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is depicted in the show’s title work. A year later, Hopper’s portrayal of commonplace aloneness dovetailed with the withdrawal and seclusion occasioned by the coronavirus pandemid. So Stevens supplemented his museum-set pictures with ones that ponder solitary figures in and around Seattle. That’s the hometown of the artist’s wife, Patricia Skinner, who appears in several works. One, which depicts her on a Puget Sound ferry, is called “Homebound” — either heading home or being confined there.
Although visually objective, Stevens’s paintings are subtly autobiographical. Among the people glimpsed in the museum scenes are the artist’s former teacher, local painter William Woodward, and a father-and-son duo that hints at Stevens’s childhood.
The gallery vignettes toy elaborately with frames and portals. As the paintings are displayed within boxes, so the spectators are positioned within rooms and doorways. The artist uses similar gambits in his non-gallery views, which also feature complex geometries. Windows define cafe customers and ferry passengers as if they were pictures under glass; reflections add layers of imagery, while also separating people. In the ferry painting, Skinner looks to the right while a ghostly figure half-materializes to her left. The specter is just another passenger, imperfectly mirrored in a large window — so close, and yet in a discrete bubble.
Bradley Stevens: Intimacy & Isolation Through Jan. 9 at Zenith Gallery, 1429 Iris St. NW.
Lisa Myers Bulmash
Also spurred by pandemic-era exile from everyday life, Lisa Myers Bulmash conceived a Morton Fine Art show, “The Home Inside My Head.” The Seattle artist combines found and personal objects into 3-D collages that conjure both African American history and her family’s own story. The pieces juggle the antiquarian and the immediate to express what Bulmash’s statement calls “a Black and female viewpoint.”
One series, “Rare & Exquisite,” places oversize models of endangered butterflies atop maps of regions of the United States collaged from Colonial-era (and thus not entirely reliable) charts. The effect is to correlate the threatened species — affixed with heavy railroad spikes that evoke hard labor — with Black people whose place in this country has always been at risk.
Examples of another antique tool, the wooden washboard, serve as frames in the “Bought and Paid For” series. The washboards hold books and ovals made of twine, which enclose overlapping transparencies of family photos. The pictures depict various old structures, including houses, and children at play. Again, Bulmash contrasts rough materials with fragile beings.
It seems apt that another piece is based on a torn piece of old sheet music repaired by kintsugi, the Japanese technique of using gold to both accentuate and exalt the cracks in a broken vessel. Bulmash’s assemblages can be seen as a bid to mend history.
Lisa Myers Bulmash: The Home Inside My Head Through Jan. 6 at Morton Fine Art, 52 O St. NW, No. 302.