Not all sculpture is monumental, but in Washington the most conspicuous examples are. Equestrian statues command the circles and squares, and modernist abstractions (or such near-abstractions as Claes Oldenburg’s) dominate the Mall’s sculpture gardens. The work in four D.C. sculpture shows is more compact, easily transportable (for a fee) to the smallest of private sculpture gardens. But the least weighty work can’t be moved at all.
If the artworks in Watergate Gallery’s “2011 Summer Sculpture” are of manageable size, the show itself is a little overwhelming. There’s so much stuff, and in so many styles, that focusing on individual items is a challenge. The exhibition includes such diverse offerings as an elegant Craig Kraft neon doodle; Barbara Kobylinska’s fanciful birds, which range from life-size to much bigger and in colors that evoke Russian icons; and Seth Goldstein and Paula Stone’s “Reclining Venus,” made mostly from curving segments of Oriental bittersweet, a virulent invasive vine.
Many of these sculptures use well-established media and forms. Robert Cole works in bronze, although his pieces vary in style and mood: “Beggar’s Bowl,” his most realistic contribution to the show, is sleek and somber; his small pig, giraffe and elephant are more stylized and whimsical. There’s also a classic (if modernist) feel to such abstractions as Sam Noto’s “Athos,” a plantlike spiral of subtly hued steel; Don Herman’s works in painted, seemingly levitating steel; and Craig Schaffer’s “Three-Fold Infinite Form,” a nautilus-like shape in textured bronze. Pamela Soldwedel intriguingly combines undulating black marble and finely polished aluminum, fused together like a sculptural cyborg.
Wood, whether sculpted or merely arranged, is also well-represented. Jeff Cooper’s “Gear Jam,” a cleanly carved if impossible mechanism, riffs on metal. Alonzo Davis makes engaging bamboo constructions, painted or wrapped in fabric and suggesting fetish objects. These have an affinity with Mike Brining’s “Cellphone,” a column partly wrapped in painted canvas. Brining also created “Wood Stack Balanced,” a gravity-defying pileup of painted blocks, and “Sense of Place,” a sleek wood plinth adorned with a chunk of black concrete and a twisted steel frame. It’s a monument of sorts, to both creation and destruction.
“The Spirit of the Wood,” in Zenith Gallery’s lobby, is somewhat easier to process. It features only two artists, Lynda Smith-Bugge and Katie Dell Kaufman, both of whom make mixed-media assemblages that emphasize wood. Smith-Bugge’s pieces, many of them mounted on pedestals that are part of the work, rely on the contrast between found and worked material. Kaufman’s, which include some that are wall-mounted and almost flat, incorporate everyday made objects, such as spoons and bowls.
At her most direct, Smith-Bugge nevertheless highlights the shape and texture of gnarled wood; “Liminal Space” places a dried boxwood shrub atop a sleek walnut column. But she usually manipulates the material further, or adds such competing textures as metal and ceramic. The spirit of this wood seems ancient and ritualistic. Constructed of bowed wood and two wires, “Epiphany” suggests an archaic musical instrument. “Raincatcher,” with a hollow log poised to funnel water into a bowl, looks like something from a Shinto shrine.
There’s also a Japanese vibe to some of Kaufman’s pieces, notably the elegant yet playful “Origin,” a series of coconut bowls that are lined in gold leaf. That’s a natural function for a bowl, but the artist often repurposes kitchen utensils. “The Process of Illumination” jauntily arrays five spoons atop a wheeled platform that’s half cart, half percussion instrument. Although Kaufman doesn’t explicitly depict Asian-style ceremonial gates, her work is full of fences, doors and steps, beckoning observers into a world that’s simpler and, perhaps, more spiritual.
Pierre-Antoine Goho, who’s showing at Hillyer Art Space, may not consider himself a sculptor. The basis of his work is painting, but he piles objects atop his canvases or stacks groups of small paintings to make a larger one. The resulting pieces often recall Robert Rauschenberg’s 1960s “Combines,” but a few resemble Kaufman’s style. Although Goho is an Ivory Coast native, his art has Asian ingredients: Bits of Chinese and Korean text join a thicket of painted metal tubes in “Body, Mind & Soul,” and “Zenergy” — inadvertently echoing Kaufman’s “Origin” — features two circles of gold-painted wood. Goho’s work isn’t austere, though. It thrives on the contrast between restraint and exuberance, simplicity and visual cacophony.
Offering fresh spins on monumentality, Flashpoint is presenting shows by Janell Olah and Nicole Herbert. Olah’s work is large but ethereal, constructed mostly from Ikea shower curtains, LEDs and air. Titled “you make me nostalgic for a place i’ve never known” after a line from Michael Chabon, Olah’s installation evokes a house and fluffy clouds. It’s inspired in part by childhood memories and contrasts the mere outline of a home with three-dimensional plastic cartoon-cloud forms. While the house is conjured by an existing wall pattern, the gently pulsating clouds are inflated by the building’s HVAC system, making them both dreamlike and mechanical. Olah’s work calls attention to hidden architectural features, spotlighting everyday surroundings that usually are taken for granted.
Constructed of tape, pipes, lights and pencil lines, Herbert’s “Trace” is even more site-specific. Encouraging the viewer to venture beyond the clean white box of the gallery, the artist has installed her work in Flashpoint’s restrooms, offices and conference area. Visitors will need a guide to see the entire show, which is just as well; someone wandering alone probably would miss much of this low-key “intervention.” Herbert has added nonfunctional electrical outlets and PVC and copper pipes that mimic real fixtures, and has drawn lines that emphasize shadows so strongly that the darker areas of wall seem to be painted-on. (They’re not.) She also “draws” tape patterns on windows to echo architectural forms that are outside Flashpoint’s building. Like Olah, Herbert calls attention to ordinary bits of the built environment, proposing new ways to look at just about everything.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
On view through Sept. 10
at Watergate Gallery,
2552 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-338-4488. watergategalleryframedesign.com
On view through Aug. 27 at Zenith Gallery, Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space. 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-783-2963. zenithgallery.com.
On view through Aug. 26 at Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW. 202-338-0680. artsandartists.org/hillyer.html.
Janell Olah’s “you make me nostalgic for a place i’ve never known,” on view through Aug. 27, and Nicole Herbert’s “Trace,” through Sept. 30, at Flashpoint. 916 G St. NW. 202-315-1305. flashpointdc.org.