The two artworks closest to the entrance of the Kreeger Museum’s “Smith/Paley” exhibition clearly come from different worlds. Clarice Smith’s “Horses at the Stall Door” is careful and calm, a realistic vignette of the Middleburg in which the Northern Virginia painter spends part of her time. Across from it is Albert Paley’s “Makalii,” a bristling steel abstraction whose jutting forms evoke tools and weapons. It’s the brawny creation of a man who teaches not at a conventional art school but at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Despite their incongruous styles and media, the two artists collaborated on a work that forms the centerpiece of this show. “Triptych” is a two-sided Smith painting with — if not precisely within — a Paley frame. The result recalls the Asian tradition of decorated folding screens and the art nouveau metalwork of Hector Guimard, who designed the original entrances to the Paris Metro. (Paley’s first prominent commission was a set of portal gates for the Renwick Gallery, finished in 1974.)
Smith’s most literal horse pictures and Paley’s most industrial sculptures represent the artists at their least akin. But Smith has recently painted landscapes and florals that are far looser, bordering on abstraction. And some of the Paley constructions shown here incorporate more-organic shapes, whether the jagged trees of “Desert Willow” or the spine-like spiral at the heart of “Contrapposto.”
On the front of “Triptych,” Smith has painted an impressionistic landscape, similar in technique to her series of New Mexico-inspired “Skyscapes.” Forceful but fluid streaks evoke both clouds and mountains, while one luminous portion hints at a cloaked sun. The back depicts a spray of flowers, precise at the lower left but turning freer toward the top right of the dynamic composition.
Both pictures feature rich browns, which complement the rust-colored steel frame. Paley’s contribution divides both paintings into equal panels with straight uprights, but it is less geometric on one side and at the bottom. Steel tendrils climb like overgrown vines, and they loop and pool at floor level. While the texture is metallic, the shapes are botanical, or nearly so.
Paley is adept at making hard appear soft. His “Steneby” series, named for the Swedish arts campus where the sculptor had a residency in 2011, includes a pile of steel loops that seem to bend like rubber. More often, though, Paley’s constructions are sharp-edged, with parts that resemble teeth (“Progression”) or martial-arts throwing stars (“Star”).
The mottled brown of the “Triptych” frame also is unusual for Paley, although not unprecedented. The finishes of many of his sculptures are stark black or shiny silver. “Composed Presence,” an abstracted machine that’s one of the show’s several maquettes for larger outdoor pieces, is painted bright red. The full-size sculpture was designed for Park Avenue and meant to compete with Manhattan’s human and architectural tumult.
Although her studio is inside the Beltway, Smith shows no affinity for urban subjects. Her paintings in this show depict only horses, the sky or flowers. Yet they’re not all as quiet as “Horses at the Stall Door.” The artist depicts motion in “Gallop,” which places five racing horses on individual panels of a folding screen, and “Steeplechase,” which silhouettes the horses and riders for greater graphic impact.
The action is subtler in the “Skyscapes,” which freeze shifts in wind, light and haze, and recent flower pictures such as “Exuberance.” In the latter, as in the floral side of “Triptych,” a tightly painted section yields to a wilder approach. The transition illustrates not a change actually seen in nature, but a shift in vision.
That shift is evident in the exhibition’s main attraction, in which the painter’s unbridled hand matches the sculptor’s experiment with twisting steel into shapes that suggest the forest more than the foundry. Smith and Paley may never work together again, but this one piece offers each of them many possible directions.
Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. 202-337-3050. kreegermuseum.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 30.
Price: $10, discounts available.