The lowest floor of the American University Museum is not exactly a basement; the building is set into the landscape so as to provide windows on several sides. But two current shows don’t call for natural light. Courtney Smith’s “Insatiable Spaces” prefers the shadows, where its disassociated forms seem all the more alien. As for Wayne Barrar’s “An Expanding Subterra,” what better place than the cellar for photographs of recently man-made grottoes?
Smith, who is based in New York, is known for deconstructing furniture, sometimes reassembling it in ways that recall the surrealist ideal of a creature as beautiful as “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” The work in this show is sleeker than Smith’s furniture pieces but still rooted in domestic objects and furnishings. Two small installations, wedged into intentionally awkward spaces, consist primarily of wallpaper-like patterned fabric on blank surfaces (and of the spaces and surfaces themselves). A third and larger piece is an array of ceiling-high wooden columns in two shades each of gray and yellow, interspersed with hanging black-light fixtures.
The rectangular pillars, which surround a concrete buttress that’s part of the building’s actual structure, resemble a thicket of trees. They also suggest Anne Truitt’s painted columns, which took the Washington Color School’s hues off the canvas and off the wall.
But Smith’s choice of colors — and the fact that she leaves one side of each column unpainted — emphasizes their starkness. The posts aren’t supposed to be pretty. They simply redefine the gallery, carving empty space into a series of partial enclosures. They remake the room into a place to get lost.
Around the corner, Barrar’s large-format photographs take a deadpan approach to the deeply weird. The pictures, made in underground mines and power stations in Australia and New Zealand, show caverns that are altered for human habitation, yet are still eerily industrial. Amid the rough, blasted-stone walls and floors are desks and chairs, parking spaces and filing cabinets, family photos and Christmas trees. The New Zealand photographer uses long exposures so that artificial lights glow and flow. There are no living creatures in these images, leaving the possibility that Subterra is populated by Morlocks, the underground brutes of H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine.”
But only humans could have built these environments, which are, at the same time, so exotic and so banal.
A collector and maker of frames, William D. Adair works with curved wood and gold leaf, preserving the craft of the 18th- and 19th-century moldings included in “Reflections: Mentor and Protege: The Work of William D. Adair and His Mentors.” The unknown European craftsmen who made these decorative objects are among Adair’s symbolic teachers. The display also features works by Adair’s instructors at Montgomery College and the University of Maryland, as well as by the artist’s students. These include a glimmering four-panel abstract painting by former Maryland professor Frank Bunts and a embossed-gold depiction of a bee by Kay Jackson, Adair’s wife and collaborator.
Adair isn’t simply an artisan; he paints and sculpts, and uses frames and mirrors as the basis for artworks that go beyond ornamentation into conceptualism. This exhibition, at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, includes oils, acrylics, watercolors and ceramics, many with tinges of gold. Frames are out of fashion for modernist paintings, but Adair uses them; the show reveals their subtle influence, notably with Clarice Smith’s four portraits of Adair, identical except for the wood or bronze forms that contain them.
In some of the most interesting works, Adair repurposes frames and mirrors. “The Golden Door to Infinity” is a battered old portal embellished with brass leaf and wrenched open to reveal a mirror painted with a loose rendering of a face. “Vanitas Futilitumas” is a mirror piece in which the reflective surface has been partially scraped away to offer a glimpse of a painting behind the glass. Having mastered frames, Adair attempts to breach their prim confines and reflect the disorderly humanity of the man in the mirror.
Gestural painting, and little else, links the work of Thierry Guillemin and Amanda Horowitz, which is being shown in “Without Proof. Open Ended.” at Kensington’s Adah Rose Gallery. Guillemin is a French-born, Maryland-based aerospace engineer who works in the abstract expressionist mode, aggressively applying bold acrylic hues with a palette knife. Horowitz is a Baltimore art student who paints on clear plastic, which she places between the lens and her subject when she photographs everyday urban scenes.
The show’s centerpiece is Horowitz’s “Transitory Space,” a triptych of views of a Baltimore alley shot through a plastic sheet partially covered by white brush strokes. At first glance, the white curls suggest fluttering cloth, evoking one of Christo’s fabric pieces. The picture has depth, detail and a sense of motion, which hold the eye. The gallery is also exhibiting some of Horowitz’s painted plastic sheets, which are less interesting than the photos they’re used to make. But one sheet, which is mostly black, makes a congenial adjunct to the subtlest of Guillemin’s canvases, “White Composition,” which is rendered in black, gray, white and a hint of yellow. Next to each other, these two uncharacteristic works reach an unexpected harmony.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
through Wednesday at the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 202-885-1300 or visit www.american.edu/museum.
through Dec. 16 at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Call 240-567-5775 or visit cms.montgomerycollege.edu.
through Dec. 18 at Adah Rose Gallery, 3766 Howard Ave., Kensington. Call 301-922-0162 or visit www.adahrosegallery.com.