Spanish artist Narciso Maisterra has pursued many forms and styles in his 50-year career, but the work in “Passing Through the Body Without Staying” doesn’t simply display his latest phase. The exhibition of masterly pastels, at Hillyer Art Space, documents his return to making art after an illness that left him both weakened and transformed. After regaining use of his right arm, Maisterra began a series of drawings that depict his altered, somewhat droopy visage. These are contrasted by nude women, younger and firmer but hardly glamorized. Although the artist isn’t coy about anatomy, he doesn’t deal in centerfold-model perfection.
If the show’s title is ambiguous, it must refer, at least in part, to the transience of the human form. Perhaps it’s the soul that passes through the body, but Maisterra’s work is not metaphysical. He’s adept at modeling and shading fleshly contours, and his subjects are often awkwardly posed to emphasize the sheer corporeality of their presence. The figures are wrapped in plastic wrap, like so much supermarket meat, or held in awkward, partially suspended poses by ropes. (The bound women are not an expression of a male artist’s control over female subjects; the models tie themselves in positions they choose.)
The figure drawings don’t emphasize faces; only a single model returns the viewer’s gaze. One drawing depicts the artist’s head at the front of the composition, with a nude in the background, further emphasizing the distinction between head and body, and old and young.
Maisterra works in Palencia, his birthplace, but he spent nearly 20 years in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s. He’s still a frequent visitor to this country, where his grown daughters live. There’s little evidence of American or modernist influence, however, in these pastels. The technique is classical, and suggests Goya’s later work. Maisterra’s drawings aren’t as haunted as that artist’s “black paintings,” but both starkly reveal an older man’s vision of life and self.
on view through March 29 at Hillyer Arts Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW; 202-338-0680; www.artsandartrists.org.
Coincidentally, there are near-nude figures, self-portraits and even a Narcissus in Timothy Johnson’s “It’s Greek to Me.” The Touchstone Gallery show is a little more playful than Maisterra’s, though. Johnson paints mythological personages in modern, often mundane situations. His Narcissus stands in a small modern kitchen, wearing only white underpants and staring at his reflection in a shiny toaster. A few of the lustier gods, who sometimes took the forms of birds to have their way with humans, are here represented by rubber ducks.
Many of the pictures feature a balding, gray-bearded man who must represent the artist himself. He appears as Hypnos, the embodiment of sleep, but also as Icarus, the heedless youngster who flew too close to the sun. This Icarus seems old enough to have known better; at least he was wearing sunglasses when he took that reckless flight. Such female characters as Persephone also tend to appear older than their dewy depictions in Renaissance myth paintings, reflecting experience rather than innocence.
Johnson’s style is neoclassic, with realistically rendered flesh, a palpable sense of depth and bold, contrasting blues and golds to frame his characters’ pink skin. The artist’s choice of subjects could also be termed traditional, although these characters are less widely known now than when such masters as Titian painted them. They, like Johnson’s versions of them, have gotten old. But his mocking depictions of them wouldn’t work if the faults once attributed to gods and demigods weren’t entirely human.
on view through March 31 at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW, 202-347-2787, www.touchstonegallery.com.
Things are splintering in “Beyond the Last Desert,” the magnum opus of “Accidental Reality,” B.G. Muhn’s show at Visarts at Rockville’s Gibbs Street Gallery. The 19-foot-wide painting includes such venerable symbols of death and decay as a skeleton and, of course, a desert. But there’s also something contemporary about the portrayal of dissolution: The picture itself is breaking down into pixels, the “picture elements” that constitute all digital imagery.
Muhn, who teaches art at Georgetown University, is not the first painter to assert visually that he’s making pictures of mechanical reproductions; the photorealists started doing that in the 1960s. And painting pixels is not the artist’s only method for fragmenting images. The show also includes “Point Reality,” which cloaks emblematic Buddhist figures behind a curtain of white daubs so that they’re almost invisible up close but perceptible from a distance.
Still, the simulation of pixels is the knottiest aspect of this show. There are multiple, McLuhanesque ironies to the technique: Muhn is painstakingly simulating by hand the dots that digital gadgets produce automatically, and these are not “real” pixels, because they’re rendered by a paintbrush, not an electronic device. But the medium is the message, even if it’s not the medium. In an age of innovative but untrustworthy systems of transmitting pictures, the fragility of life is mirrored by the capriciousness of technology.
There’s also much computer-related art in “Crossing the Distance,” upstairs at Visarts’s Kaplan gallery, and that’s not just because the group show’s participants are college-age art students. It also reflects the easiest way to communicate between the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, and the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, in Kabul.
If the Internet were a logical way to exchange ideas between the two schools, using it wasn’t always easy. Luis Arboleda’s dinner-table installation, with one chair marked by “caution” tape, reflects the frustration of limited contact with his Afghan collaborator. Other Marylanders were inspired by the media images — DeAndre Britton did a large painting of the Time magazine cover photo of a young woman whose face was mutilated by the Taliban — or by imagining life in that very different land: Bailey Sheehan’s “Real Men Wear Pink” shows a couple, modeled on the artist and his boyfriend, with nooses above their heads.
The Afghan artists participated in collaborations that yielded video and audio works that contemplate cultural and religious differences. The art made by the Afghans alone tends to be more traditional. Setareh Salehi Arashloo’s “Knitted Camp” series consists of evocative drawings in black ink with gray and white washes; Jalil Barati’s abstract drawing-collages each incorporate a photo of a woman in customary Afghan dress. These aren’t the show’s most provocative entries, but they are among the most elegant.
on view through March 31 at Gibbs Street and Kaplan galleries, Visarts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-315-8200, www.visartsrockville.org.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.