The title of the exhibition “Traces” at the newly reopened Kreeger Museum suggests a collection of wisps and glimmers. In fact, the group show — originally scheduled for the fall, but delayed because of the museum’s pandemic closure — features many works that are large enough to overwhelm and even immerse, and enough of them to fill three galleries and spill onto a staircase and the lawn. Yet the pieces can be said to be traces in one sense: They contain vestiges of natural, personal and cultural history.
Aside from hailing from D.C. or nearby, the eight artists seem to share little. Their media range from painting and sculpture to video and sound, all practiced in a distinctive manner. The similarities among their work are less visual than conceptual, as curator Sarah Tanguy teases out in her essay about the collection. The artists’ “use of juxtaposition and overlap creates dramatic tension,” she writes.
The overlapping can be as anarchic as in Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann’s “Salamander Room,” a mixed-media work — part drawing, part painting — that covers one wall and part of an adjacent one, and sprawls from large sheets of paper onto the wall itself. Or it can be as tidy as in Johab Silva’s “Point A to Point B and to Point A Again,” which repeats just those two letters, in contrasting colors, across four sets of sandwiched clear-plastic panels. Where Tzu-Lan Mann’s mural was inspired partly by millennia-old Buddhist cave paintings in western China, Silva’s A’s and B’s have the bright, clean look of mid-20th century American commerce — and the pop art that both mocked and celebrated it.
The junglelike tendrils of Tzu-Lan Mann’s piece lead, symbolically if not actually, to a separate room where Brandon Morse’s computer animation sends tree branches hurtling toward the viewer. “Ambient Distress in the Thicket” is an algorithm-generated environment in which a monochromatic forest thrives and decays. It’s both an ecological alert and a visual metaphor for generative systems.
Nature motifs can take the form of the spider-like web, simultaneously delicate and imposing, that Rania Hassan has installed above the stairs that lead to the show’s basement galleries. Organic materials feature in Roxana Alger Geffen’s elaborate assemblages, although they rely more on man-made domestic objects, including clothing and furniture. Sunlight powers Billy Friebele’s “Nero Plays a Fiddle,” an outdoor sculpture made of industrial parts; its two sound-generating bits are wired to solar panels. Even Sebastian Martorana’s marble sculptures — neoclassical in technique, if not subject matter — pack an environmental message, because they’re often hewed from salvaged marble.
Martorana’s gambit is to carve soft things, with exquisite realism, from hard stone. The selection here includes gloves, draped fabric and stuffed animals, notably a seemingly well-worn bear. The Teddy is not merely a sculptor’s whimsy. Titled “Permanent Separation Anxiety,” the toy embodies the artist’s objection to the U.S. government policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.
That’s the show’s most up-to-date political statement but not its only one. Antonio McAfee made 3-D versions of formal photographic portraits — designed to be viewed through 1950s-style red/green glasses — that were originally compiled by W.E.B. Du Bois for a sociological exhibit of “American Negroes” at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The goal is to give the dignified historical personages “multitudes of possibilities, real and imagined,” McAfee’s statement explains. His project parallels Geffen’s, as her work “examines my family and its complicated, contradictory relationship to privilege, race and class,” according to her artist statement.
Silva’s A-to-B panels are autobiographical in their own way; they were inspired by musings on how he got to his current place in life. There’s also a history, though not a personal one, to Friebele’s contributions, which include a series of four drawings of circular patterns. These and the outdoor sculpture are very different in form, yet they have a common inspiration: a 1671 drawing of sound waves amplified from a speaking trumpet.
Friebele’s circles are etched in black ink atop mirrors, whose reflective surfaces complement the glossiness of Silva and McAfee’s nearby work. Yet the drawings themselves, and the frames of the mirrors, are funkier. Such irregularities reveal how an artist, even one whose work is machine-tooled, can leave traces of the human hand.
Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. kreegermuseum.org.
Dates: Through May 29.
Admission: Admission is by suggested donation of $10; $8 for students and seniors; free for members. Timed-entry passes, good for one 50-minute session limited to 15 visitors, are required. Masks are required for visitors ages 4 and older.