While the physical impairments of some great artists are well-known (Beethoven was deaf), others are a matter of speculation (El Greco might have had astigmatism). In the future, art scholarship will be simpler because personal identity has become central to defining an aesthetic. Thus, the 17 artists represented in “Shift,’’ a group show organized by VSA, an international organization on arts and disability, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery, are not simply living with disabilities; many of them have made that the crux of their work.
This can be powerful but also confining. Mare Vaccaro has alopecia universalis, which renders her hairless. So she photographs herself, emphasizing her “unfeminine’’ bald head in opposition to ruffles and other frills. Bruce Monroe is living with HIV, and so he crafts figures — on paper or from sculptural fiberglass — with T-cell shapes punched out to show the lack of them in his own body. Both artists’ work is beautifully crafted but overly reductive.
Some of these artists use surrogates of a sort. Sarah Beren, who has fibromyalgia, crafted a ceramic rabbit with removable fabric organs for a piece titled “But You Don’t Have Cancer, Which Is Good.’’ Gwynneth VanLaven, who’s from McLean, uses a yellow-gowned figure and bright orange traffic-control signs in woozy photographs that recall the car crash that damaged her leg. William A. Newman, a longtime Corcoran College of Art and Design instructor who has multiple sclerosis, shows one of his recent sculptures, which address metamorphosis by rendering fruit and vegetable forms in stainless steel. (He also has a handsome abstract painting in the show.)
Many of these pieces involve declining vision. Chris Tally Evans makes blurry videos such as “Tales of First and Second Sight,’’ which recounts the lives of the grandparents and parents that culminated in his losing his sight. He attributes his condition to the fact that his parents were distant cousins, but is that unequivocally the cause? One drawback of personal-identity art is that it admits no outside opinions, even medical ones.
Allen Bryan conceived the photo montages in his series, “Comforts of Home,’’ in response to an eye disease that gave him tunnel vision. Using digital manipulation, he combines photographs he made over many years into panoramic collages that are both everyday and eerie, with ghostly people amid solid walls and furniture. Kurt Weston, legally blind because of an HIV/AIDS-related condition, uses a digital scanner to photograph his face behind objects laid on the glass; the distortion and narrow depth of field evoke his own limited vision but also the look of early photography.
Among the less didactic pieces are the photographs of Liz Doles, which emulate the vision allowed her by acute ophthalmic thyroid disease by using a pinhole camera and long exposures. Her wispy street views show us how she sees, but they also reveal a beauty that’s not merely subjective.
There’s a certain kind of slasher film that takes the killer’s point of view as a series of teenagers are murdered. Then the movie switches to the perspective of the last potential victim, who’s usually a young woman. This B-movie trope is what inspired the title of “The Final Girl,’’ explains Adam Dwight, who organized this group show for the Washington Project for the Arts. He assembled work by artists who “pull from both the horror and psychedelic genres’’ as part of WPA’s “Coup d’Espace’’ program. (A play on “coup d’etat,’’ the series turns the organization’s small space over to guest curators.)
Dwight’s selection might seem to be exemplified by Victoria F. Gaitan’s two large-format photographs, “Filthy Dirty Nos. 1 & 2.’’ These offer alternate views of a woman who’s gagged, trussed-up and partially wrapped in clear plastic sheeting. She’s doused in brownish liquid — it looks more like soy sauce than the proverbial ketchup — and studded with tiny fragments that resemble broken glass. The brightly colored, highly detailed photos suggest serial-killer movies, and yet Gaitan doesn’t explicitly simulate the effects of violence. The result is disturbing yet oddly festive, more evocative of Halloween (the holiday) than “Halloween’’ (the scare flick).
A whole show of such images might be oppressive, but most of the other 23 pieces on the walls don’t refer directly to horror movies; neither do the 27 shorts playing on a 90-minute loop in the “video lounge,’’ which consists of a single TV monitor and two of the brown-paper benches currently on display at Industry Gallery in Northeast Washington. Andrew Wodzianski, for example, shows four small abstract paintings executed on lobby cards for old movies. One of the films is “Psycho,’’ but Wodzianski obscures rather than highlights the pictures on the mini-posters — which are tame by contemporary standards anyway.
Video is integral to “The Final Girl,’’ and Dwight has also assembled a mix of obscure horror movies and contemporary art videos in a “rental store’’ that’s meant to recall the primordial age before Netflix. (“The idea of the video store is really what spawned the whole exhibition,’’ Dwight says.) The work in the video lounge, however, rarely draws from the horror genre. The only piece that takes material directly from a film is Brett Bergmann’s “The Noise of Their Leaving,’’ which isolates and abstracts sounds and images from “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’’ a French new-wave film that wouldn’t be found in the “horror’’ section in any but the most disorganized video shop.
The videos do include some creepy ones, notably John Davis’s “What for What,’’ which uses nine minutes of real-time audio from a bungled execution. Unexpectedly, much of the video work owes its power to sound rather than vision. Indeed, the most horrorific aspect of “The Final Girl’’ is the videos’ frequent use of the sort of ominous tones and unsettling rhythms that Hollywood borrowed from mid-20th-century classical music. Viewers of the video-lounge fare will never see a hand clutching a knife — well, almost never — but the musical drones, bleats and clangs often evoke such images.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
runs through June 30. Kennedy Center, Terrace Gallery, 2700 F St. NW. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.
runs through June 24. Washington Project for the Arts, 2023 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Visit www.wpadc.org or call 202-234-7103.