Cartoonish creatures, like this humanoid cat, experience real emotions in the work of painter Ed Bisese. (Ed Bisese)

Ed Bisese and Lisa Montag Brotman have a lot in common.

You’ll find more than a bit of female flesh in each of the Washington painters’ solo exhibitions, on view in adjacent first-floor galleries at the American University Museum. For Bisese, it’s served in the form of Gwyneth Paltrow — or, rather, a comically unflattering caricature of the actress — along with several topless Hawaiian hula girls (part of a series that also features portraits of some of the island’s former native rulers). For Brotman, it comes in the form of her well-known series of female nudes and women in leotards, typically posed against a patterned, wallpaper-like backdrop of fruits, vegetables or flowers (or, in one case, menacing daggers).

Both artists are, primarily, figurative painters, with Bisese staking out a cartoonish turf and Brotman holding down the more realistic end of the artistic spectrum, albeit with a flat, somewhat idealized style. Oddly enough, both seem less interested in anatomy or the human form than in the psychological states that their cast of characters represents.

Let’s begin with Brotman. A roughly 40-year retrospective, her exhibition “What Can I Say?” features everything from vaguely surreal landscapes to small, storybook-like tableaux, many of which feature people caught between two states. In several of the pictures, this liminal stage is made quite literal, represented by figures leaping over, suspended atop or falling into chasms. “She was cautiously optimistic,” reads the sardonic caption of one 2002 work that shows a woman trying to jump over an abyss.

Brotman’s actors are, in one sense, neither here nor there.

A similar ambivalence exists in her “Women” series, which depicts solitary subjects who somehow come across as both innocent and sexy, passive and powerful, fleshy and made of porcelain, like antique dolls on a shelf.

Brotman paints like a pro; her silken surfaces rarely reveal a single brush stroke. Yet, there’s a barely hidden anxiety that simmers just beneath their polished surfaces.

Bisese also scratches at something under the skin.

The heart of his exhibition is presented like a sideshow, with a tentlike entrance advertising its carnival-themed title, “Alive.” Inside, there’s a series of several paintings featuring the artist’s trademark anthropomorphic animals: elephants, cats, bears and other critters that have human bodies and wear clothes. They also exhibit very human emotions: fear, loneliness, aggression, lust and love. In “Careless,” a crocodile sneaks up on a rabbit at a watering hole by moonlight.

That clueless, soon-to-be midnight snack (who appears elsewhere under the name “Bunnyman”) may be a stand-in for the artist, and his predicament a metaphor for our own mortality. If so, Bunnyman is not the only stand-in. Bisese’s “Dreamer” features a man in pajamas lying on a couch, surrounded by what seem to be figments of his imagination: a humanoid cat, a fox wearing lingerie, an elephant in plaid pants and a naked bunnywoman holding a skull.

Most interestingly, the dreamer is painted less realistically than the dream, as if Bisese, like Brotman, is telling us that the fancies that spring from our psyches — good, bad, scary, funny — are at least as real as we are.

The Story Behind the Work

True to its educational mission, the A.U. Museum is a great place to stretch your mind and open your eyes. In addition to Brotman’s and Bisese’s shows, you’ll find several other concurrent exhibitions, including a display of Joel D’Orazio’s paintings, bowling-ball sculptures and nonfunctional art-chairs, along with a historical mini-survey of Siberian-themed documentary images by Russian photographers.

But one of the coolest things I’ve stumbled upon in a long time is just down the hall from the museum, in the Katzen Arts Center’s Rotunda Gallery.

On view through Dec. 6, the show is a photographic installation by A.U. faculty member Naoko Wowsugi, whose work has included conceptual photography, performance and video. Titled “Thank You for Teaching Me English,” the installation consists of 30 portraits, each presented in a deliberately ugly frame and shot in an awkwardly formal style, like something out of a Sears portrait studio. Every image is captioned with a single, seemingly random handwritten word — e.g., “humongous,” “cliche” or “gynecologist.” All of the subjects seem to have been captured in the middle of uttering a polysyllabic word — as if they had been asked to say not “cheese” but “Camembert.” And, it turns out, that’s exactly what they were doing.

The Korean-born Wowsugi, who was raised in Japan, had a steep learning curve when she arrived in the United States in 2001, knowing only the word “yes.” “Thank You” memorializes the people who helped build her vocabulary, several of whom posed for her while articulating the very word they had taught her.

The photographs may look goofy — that’s part of their charm — but the installation as a whole feels beautiful, intimate and profoundly humane.

— Michael O'Sullivan