At first glance, “Divergence,” on view at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, is powerfully disturbing. That’s probably true even for those who already have seen the show, which was presented this summer — in a somewhat altered form and under the name “Mind + Body + Metaphor” — at the 39th Street Gallery in Mount Rainier.
Along the walls hang an assortment of sculpted bones, human body parts, fragments of architectural ornamentation and broken furniture, evoking dismemberment, lynching and pillaging. Bare light bulbs are interspersed among the objects, suggesting not an art gallery but an interrogation room (or an abattoir).
Elsewhere, there are a series of mixed-media collages fusing painting with photography and, in a couple of cases, video. Each of these images centers on a solitary human figure wearing a straitjacket and/or a blindfold. The knee-jerk association is with madness, imprisonment and execution.
But wait. The works, by sculptor Njena Surae Jarvis and painter/collagist Shaunté Gates, aren’t so easily sized up.
This is, after all, a gallery with the word “healing” in its name. Part of the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts — an organization offering cancer patients the restorative power of art, among other things — the gallery didn’t import this show because it was a downer. The longer you spend with the work, the richer it seems in associations. Jarvis describes herself as an “alchemist of objects,” and you can see why. Her work — and Gates’s as well — slowly reveals depths of meaning.
Several of Jarvis’s bones, for instance, are fused with the furniture parts, suggesting less destruction than deconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction. The sense of pulling something — or someone — together comes across as strongly here as does the sense of tearing something apart. As dreadful (in the sense of “full of dread”) as her sculptural installation appears, it’s also kind of pretty, with braided cords tying its bits and pieces together into a whole. Even her title, “See What You See Is What You See,” evokes not fatalism but open-endedness and possibility.
Similarly, Gates’s symbolic vocabulary can be read more than one way. His straitjackets, for instance, call to mind cocoons, the swaddling of a baby or the wrapping of bats’ wings. Although his figures are alone — a reflection of the disconnection the artist says is endemic to a people tethered to technology but isolated from one another — several of his pictures depict puppetlike strings attached to them. Whether this is evidence of manipulation by a higher power or a connection to an unseen energy source is open to interpretation.
True to its name, “Divergence” deviates from what at first seems painfully obvious, inviting the viewer to choose between multiple meanings — or to embrace them all.
Through Oct. 25 at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U St. NW. 202-483-8600. www.smithcenter.org/gallery.
Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 5 p.m.; Saturday
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The gallery will be closed
Oct. 10-11 for a cancer retreat. Free.
Public program: On Oct. 16 at 6:30 p.m., the gallery will present a talk with the artists and curator Martha Jackson Jarvis.
Njena Surae Jarvis and Shaunté Gates are products of Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But it took a bit of artistic matchmaking to bring the 30-year-old Jarvis, who lives in New York, where she performs rap under the name Njena Reddd Foxxx, together with the 35-year-old, Washington-based Gates.
That pairing is thanks to the show’s curator, veteran Washington sculptor Martha Jackson Jarvis, whose keen eye can be credited with spotting the work of Gates, an artist whose work has appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the area. It may have been a bit easier for the “Divergence” curator to come up with the exhibition’s other featured artist: Njena Surae Jarvis is her daughter.
According to the curator, Njena was always aesthetically inclined, offering feedback on her mother’s numerous public commissions, even as a little girl. “I would have done it this way” was a typical critique, Jarvis recalls.
The body parts featured in “See What You See Is What You See” make literal that link between generations. They were cast from three generations of the artist’s family, including Njena’s mother, Njena herself and a grandchild.
Martha Jackson Jarvis calls the artists of “Divergence” “young people to watch.” Their voices, she says, “speak to the future.”