Rendered with a confident balance of realism and spontaneity, Yevgeniy Fiks’s large, square-format flower paintings all depict red begonias. They appear both classical and contemporary, although there’s a mechanical, Warhol-like quality that’s clearly modern. What really tips the balance is the series’ title, “Kimjongilias.” All these near-identical blooms are hybrids devised to honor one of the last relics of 20th-century ideology: the communist dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, who died last year.
Warhol’s repetitions either mocked or celebrated — take your pick — the uniformity of consumer mass culture. Fiks’s paintings, showing at Galerie Blue Square, are more ominous. Indirectly but powerfully, they comment on an assembly-line culture in which every person is shaped to a uniform mind-set and bred to serve a single master. Fiks has a natural interest in this sort of social and intellectual domination. The artist was born in Moscow in 1972, when the Soviet Union controlled its citizenry with a similar brutishness.
Now based in New York, Fiks can have a more playful perspective on authoritarianism. His other conceptual series at the gallery is the “Magnitogorsk Guide to the National Gallery of Art,” named for a steel-making city developed under Stalin’s five-year economic plans. One way the Soviet Union financed its rapid industrialization was to sell works from the Hermitage, including paintings by Botticelli, Titian, Raphael and Rembrandt that ended up in Washington. Fiks combined small reproductions of these masterpieces with the cover of the 1933 “Five-Year Plan for the Development of the National Economy of the U.S.S.R.,” the first edition to be published in English. Then he printed the combined images on metal, a suitably industrial material. The result is a pungent reminder of the tangled relationship between politics and art — and the simple one between art and money.
Carol Brown Goldberg takes functional things and makes them useless. Her show at GWU’s Luther W. Brady Gallery, “Sculpture and Works on Paper,” includes drawings that repurpose the symbols of maps, graphs and meteorological charts in abstract compositions. It also features two arrays of bronze sculptures that puckishly combine the forms of ordinary domestic objects, from faucets and egg slicers to telephones and hair dryers.
Goldberg, a longtime local artist who used to teach at American University, invokes surrealist Andre Breton and his circle’s use of “automatic writing,” a technique for (allegedly) allowing the subconscious to take control of one’s pen. Her work also recalls surrealist Marcel Duchamp, who exhibited mass-produced everyday objects as sculpture. But where those precursors subverted traditional aesthetics with the messy and the banal, Goldberg takes a tidier approach.
Her drawings and mixed-media works, often on handmade paper, might have a doodlelike offhandedness. Yet they’re elegantly organized, the colors and shapes complementary and harmonious. The sculpture is cheekier, because it dares to pull objects out of kitchen drawers and present them as art. Goldberg arranges the commonplace stuff in artful juxtapositions — a light socket melds with a pitcher, a bellows camera balances on an iron — and then exalts the unions by casting them in bronze. Skeptics of modern art might find Goldberg’s work perplexing, but most would have to concede that it’s beautifully executed.
A collagist as much as a painter, Bethel Aniaku builds patchwork compositions that include shards of text as well as impastoed paint. His pictures can be as simple as “Landscape,” which is basically just two bands of heavily worked color, or as complex as “Stage of Great People,” which incorporates chunks of a reproduction of the wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth. What links all the paintings in Aniaku’s show “Instinct of Desire” are their earth tones. The Togo-born local artist applies tans, browns and yellows in thick, lumpy rectangles, often layering oil paint over acrylic. The color and texture resemble clay and earth, implicitly evoking the African landscape.
That’s not all there is to Aniaku’s work at Parish Gallery, but such titles as “Mother Land” suggest that home is a constant theme. So does his use of wood, which pays tribute to his carpenter ancestors. “My Note Book” is painted on a wooden panel, and “Schedule” incorporates a wooden ruler. This set of paintings is mostly on canvas, usually mounted on stretchers but sometimes hanging loosely on the wall. The latter pieces suggest tapestries, another echo of practical crafts in art that’s abstract and personal, yet with a strong sense of communal tradition.
At first glance, Peter Charles’s work seems simply to combine two bygone decorative traditions: early American toleware (trays and bowls made of thin metal) and Japanese folding screens. But Charles, whose “Painted Screens” is on display at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, isn’t just an artisan with a taste for antique techniques and materials. He’s a Georgetown University studio art professor who incorporates art history references into his three-dimensional pieces and sometimes crimps his hand-cut metalwork into eccentric, impractical shapes.
Like the artisans who developed these forms centuries ago, Charles often takes pictorial motifs from nature; vines, flowers and branches embellish the paper and metal. He also appropriates pictures from Japanese ukiyo-e prints and well-known Western paintings. But he gives these familiar images a contemporary spin: The cord to a set of iPod earbuds intertwines with vegetation, and the backs of the screens have simplified versions of what’s on the front — sometimes so simplified that they’ve been reduced to a pattern of pixels. The pixels are painted, not produced by digital photography, but they’re another reflection of Charles’s interest in observing, and depicting, the world from multiple angles.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through April 14 at Galerie Blue Square, 1662 33rd St. NW. Call 202-957-1401 or www.galeriebluesquare.com.
on view through April 20 at George Washington University Luther W. Brady Gallery, 805 21st St. NW, second floor. Call 202-994-1525 or visit www.gwu.edu/~bradyart.
on view through April 17 at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW. Call 202-944-2310 or visit www.parishgallery.com.
on view through Wednesday at Cross Mackenzie Gallery, 2026 R St. NW. Call 202-333-7070 or visit www.crossmackenzie.com.