Adiverse selection of contemporary art straining under a heavy concept, “Contain, Maintain, Sustain” is the sort of survey show that rates a subtitle: “Exploring the Influence of Sustainability on Contemporary Art.” Practically speaking, that means a lot of pieces assembled from found objects, many that evoke or invoke nature and a few that are frankly didactic.
On display at Rosslyn’s Artisphere and presented in collaboration with the Washington Project for the Arts and the Washington Sculptors Group, “Contain, Maintain, Sustain” features the work of 24 artists, nine of them from the Washington region. Nearly all the pieces are three-dimensional, and they’re just as likely to have been constructed from old magazines (Jens Praet’s paper-and-resin benches) or discarded sweaters (Lina Vargas de la Hoz’s “Blue and Red Space”) as from stone, metal or wood. Some, of course, use video or electric lights — powered, no doubt, by renewable energy.
Most of the work doesn’t directly address sustainability, but a lot of it does repurpose existing materials. Mariah Anne Johnson’s “Dredge” uses folded bedsheets to suggest layers of soil and rock; Michael Cataldi’s “$250 USD” appears from a distance to be a pile of branches but is actually leftover sticks of copper, zinc and tin. (The over-conceptual title refers to both the value of the metal and the honorarium he received for contributing to the exhibition.)
Some of the more interesting pieces are on the gallery’s exterior terrace. Tom Greaves’s “Heart of Hearts,” a steel-framed bird feeder in the shape of a human heart, is planted amid exotic grasses. Ronit Eisenbach’s “Ground Covers’’ replace five of the patio’s pavers with aluminum squares cast to simulate rough-surfaced rock. Two photographs, printed on handmade rice paper, show how Eisenbach’s covers appear in a natural setting, where they present a different sort of contrast.
Addressing environmental issues more directly, Morgana King constructs ceramic gasoline cans whose designs evoke a tidy past (birds and plants in the style of Ming Dynasty museum pieces) or a messy present (black and brown petroleum-like smears). King’s titles, which include “Bush Dynasty” and “Goldman Sachs Dynasty,” are a little blatant, but the cans themselves are subtly articulate. They remind gallery-goers of the dirty industries whose products allow the refined contemplation of beauty.
There are a number of works that don’t offer much to the eye and require altogether too much justification in the accompanying catalogue. Leave it to local art star Dan Steinhilber to twirl past theory with a piece of immediate appeal. His untitled construction combines a bottomless metal trash can, an electric floor fan and a half-shredded plastic bag into a sort of dance piece: The fan-blown bag undulates in midair, prosaic yet fascinating. The artist is a master of making stuff from made stuff, transforming the ordinary into the unexpected. It may not have much to do with sustainability, but Steinhilber does engage in artistic recycling. He provides a fresh view of cheap, functional items that seem utterly devoid of possibility.
Brandon Hill’s playful new show at the Lamont Bishop Gallery, “ChickenVille,” is stuffed with found objects, but the Baltimore artist’s aims are not exactly ecological. He’s conserving memories in an attempt to memorialize the nearly lost essence of working-class neighborhoods in cities like his home town. The term “ChickenVille’’ may be inspired by a sign, included in one 3-D montage, offering “adult video sales & chicken.” But to him, Hill says, the name means “comfort food,” both literal and psychic.
The show is divided into four thematic parts and is, in essence, a series of installations. While some of the pieces can be identified (and thus sold) individually, others are site-specific. The walls have been painted to identify each section, and sometimes those backdrops are part of the presentation. One amusing piece features a vampiric spray can that’s menacing a fallen can, with red paint dripping from both the victim’s wound and the metal teeth cut into the side of the aggressor. Some of the blood-colored pigment has spattered the wall behind the attack.
Among the show’s ingredients are family photos, hot colors, an ancient Domino Sugar can and images of masked wrestlers. But the central motif is the skateboard, an easily recognizable shape the artist twists in incongruous ways. These witty pieces are more made than found. They demonstrate the woodworking skills that distinguish Hill, the son of a carpenter, from a junk-art assembler who simply has an eye for the evocative object.
The lineup of boards (“decks,” to the aficionado) includes some that bear images, incorporate extraneous things — a desk lamp and a violin, for example — or express pure form: A section of the array that’s partially hidden behind a pillar features just the outline of board, rendered by a black line on the white wall. Among the other visual jokes are a nerd board with a pocket that holds pens and a vintage Texas Instruments calculator, and a sex-ed deck that wears a sock over an undulating tail that suggests an animated sperm. In one corner of the gallery, an array of partial decks overlap into a jagged, battered whole. (Hill says he was inspired by chain mail.)
This section of the show is titled “Deep in the Woods,” and the nature of wood is one of its concerns. While many of the boards are sleekly aerodynamic, others haven’t quite surrendered their original character: Partial branches protrude from their gently curved ovals. Hill’s skateboards don’t return to a state of nature, but they do sometimes reveal the organic forms beneath man-made shapes. Hard as it may be to envision today, ChickenVille used to be Eden.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
is on view through July 17. Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit www.artisphere.com or call 703-875-1100.
by Brandon Hill is on view through June 11. Lamont Bishop Gallery, 1314 Ninth St. NW. Visit lamontbishop.com.