“Visionary art” is the polite term for stuff made by untutored artists, sometimes called “outsider” or “naive.” But, then, most visual artists aspire to being visionary, or something like that. And the pieces in “Messages From Outsiderdom,” the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery’s abundant exhibition of the genre, are not especially naive. With its candy colors and junkyard ingredients, the work may be friskier than the most austere strains of contemporary art, but it’s been executed with ample craft.
There are more than 80 pieces in the selection, ranging from large paintings to tiny sculptures made of salvaged objects. Many of them are mixed-media constructions, recalling Joseph Cornell and incorporating everything from bottle caps and gold leaf to birch bark and tree fungus. Among the eeriest is a sculptural collage by Lee T. Wheeler, a local artist known for designing the interiors for funky bars and restaurants: “Never the Same” combines wood, scrap metal, horsehair and a prosthetic eye in a hybrid that’s part bird, part birdhouse.
Some of the subjects are religious or mythological: Darien Reece’s “Lilith Tempts the Snake” certainly qualifies as visionary, and Jessie Montes’s “A New Day” is a sainted portrait of President Obama, albeit one painted on corrugated cardboard. But other participants favor lighthearted themes. Jane Pettit assembles broken crockery into rough-edged mosaics; “Maiden of the Deep” is a woman with ceramic lids for breasts, and “Ode to Dog” sticks a few tiny porcelain felines amid the fragments that coalesce into a canine. Matt Sesow’s “Cowboy Chicken” is a painting of a guy riding a chicken, rendered with hot colors and a hint of the style of British illustrator Ralph Steadman. Like a lot of these works, it’s more a humorous daydream than a solemn vision.
Nine artists, most of them photographers, are represented in “Wild Things,” Adamson Gallery’s survey of pictures of animals (Homo sapiens excluded). The work tends to be big and crisp, and all the more real for those qualities, whether in Robert Longo’s large lithograph of a great white’s jaws or Adam Fuss’s even larger photograph of a chrysalis. The show is dominated by the two artists who have multiple pieces in it, William Wegman and Martin d’Orgeval, whose art could hardly be more different in tone.
Wegman works with Polaroid cameras and a stable of Weimaraners — or at least it seems like a stable after he arrays the dogs in multiple views. Composed both elegantly and playfully, these photos show impressively well-behaved dogs in a confetti shower or resting their heads on each other’s backs. Taking pop art into the kennel, Wegman sometimes employs multiple frames and primary colors. The three-part “Front Red/Yellow” uses a Weimaraner to link two blocks of color, neatly connecting the panels without subjecting the pooch to the indignities of some of the photographer’s more contrived tableaux.
Where Wegman’s work is lively and direct, d’Orgeval’s is rueful and obscured by soot. His 2008 suite of photos, “Touched by Fire,” shows the aftermath of a blaze at a Paris taxidermy shop. The pictures of partially consumed creatures, including butterflies and a bear, offer disturbing intimations of death. They also reflect on human arrogance. The people who had these animals stuffed thought that they would, in a way, live forever. But the action of the flames reminds the viewer that attempting to preserve life after death is, well, unnatural.
Known for often showing work that depicts its immediate neighborhood, Gallery plan b journeys far from Logan Circle with a show of several artists from Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) and one from Jordan. The Burmese work is often bright and generally simple, sometimes to the point of seeming naive. The highlights include Moe Nyo’s realistic paintings of stately white temples framed by pink blossoms and Aung Myint’s curving black forms on canvas that’s cunningly painted to resemble burlap.
The standouts of “Plan B Goes International,” however, are Jordanian Bader Mahasneh’s mixed-media photographs of men in anguished, contorted poses. The stances suggest modern dance as well as Old Masters, and there’s pigment slathered on the models and atop the images. There’s no actual paint on the surfaces; the brush strokes have been superimposed photographically, perhaps with filters but probably digitally. Even if the textures are an illusion, they’re striking, as are the colors, which are generally dark or earthy. One exception is a figure on a vivid blue background, his skin caked with white, while the overall composition is smudged with daubs of orange. It’s as compellingly theatrical as a Caravaggio.
Among the chief interests of contemporary artists who reject the preeminence of painting and sculpture are handicrafts and computer technology. Hana Kim and Shana Kim combine the two in “Atmospheric Front,” an installation at Flashpoint. The piece consists of three handmade, hammocklike webs, connected to pulleys, motors and a motion detectors. When visitors move among the woven constructions, they undulate slowly.
The Northern Virginia-bred sisters — Hana trained as an architect, Shana is an animator and video artist — say the piece as a synthesis of technology and “the work of the hand.” But its title suggests weather, and the Kims’ “hybrid organism of code and cloth” can also be seen as representing clouds. The piece isn’t exactly Wordsworthian, but those who wander lonely through the gallery may have a sense of vapor slowly rising and falling in a chamber of simulated sky.
Many late-20th-century artists sought to go beyond language, but today’s visual art tends to be wordy. While the Hirshhorn prepares its brassy, text-heavy Barbara Kruger installation, the Lithuanian Embassy is showing work by Krista Bard, whose approach is gentler and more mystical. Way more mystical, in fact. The calligraphic pieces in her “Sacred Words” series are all text, save for small splashes of bright color and substances such as frankincense, myrrh and holy water.
After anointing a sheet of paper, the Philadelphia artist covers it with words and phrases from hallowed works — including the Torah, the Bible and John Lennon’s “Imagine” — or more general benedictions. Some pieces array multiple languages, such as one inscribed with various words and characters for God. The process of rendering the intricate patterned text may constitute a form of meditation. But the message is so blandly affirmative that some viewers may have a negative reaction.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through Aug. 18 at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U St. NW; 202-483-8600; www.smithcenter.org/gallery.
On view through Aug. 25 at Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-232-0707; www.adamsongallery.org .
On view through Aug. 26 at Gallery
plan b, 1530 14th St. NW; 202-234-2711; www.galleryplanb.com .
On view through Aug. 18 at at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/
On view through Sept. 14 at the Lithuanian Embassy, 2622 16th St. NW; 202-234-5860; usa.mfa.lt/index.php?1277318537 .