Devotees of Hollywood movies complain about the mysteries of art films, yet it’s remarkably easy to twist straightforward storytelling into an arty enigma. That’s what Jonathan Monaghan does to an utterly mainstream and generally simple-minded narrative form: the video game. His “Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings,” an eight-minute video screening continuously at the Curator’s Office gallery, cryptically repurposes characters and elements from “Street Fighter,” “G.I. Joe” and “Super Mario Bros.”
Monaghan, a recent University of Maryland MFA who had a related video in Conner’s “Academy 2011” show in the fall, grew up playing some of these games. And his skills with 3D Studio Max software could earn him a career at Pixar or some maker of bland, computer-generated entertainment. But Monaghan’s video shorts owe less to “Toy Story” than to film artist Matthew Barney, who turns his obsessions into elaborately staged scenarios. Both men’s work is epic yet private, a dreamlike procession of borrowed images that critique shopworn notions of luxury, power and manhood.
Although his visual style is pure Nintendo, Monaghan interjects things from outside the vid-game universe. The locations include Princess Peach’s castle, but also New York’s old-money Metropolitan Club and an opera house that doubles as a bull ring. A cheesy, “SportsCenter”-style fanfare alternates with passages from Bizet’s “Carmen,” and a busty superheroine shares the non-story with the image of a delicate Renaissance beauty. Solemn images of royalty contrast with goofy, Disney-style birds and fishes, and the parallel worlds of boys’ and girls’ video games disconcertingly collide. In one scene, the hyper-muscled warriors find themselves in a hair salon and have no choice but to get a shampoo. The power of the video-game designer is supreme, even when — as in the case of “Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings” — the designer has clearly lost the thread of “Street Fighter’s” macho logic.
Surveying about four decades of photographs, “Maremagnum” is a tribute to Barcelona-born Jordi Socias, but also to photography. Socias’s pictures show a film-noir taste for night and shadow, wet streets and glistening metal. Enlarged to poster size, and sometimes mounted on lightboxes, the prints on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute are visceral and rough-textured. They glory in the graininess that was once evidence of photos made in low light or on the move.
A self-taught shooter, Socias began as a co-founder of Agencia Popular, which reported news that the Franco regime censored. “Maremagnum” means maelstrom, and some of the photographer’s earlier images depict struggle and protest. One gallery in this show — one that uses lightboxes — is all news photos, caught on the street or from above, looking down at the tumult. Yet Socias also took time for more artfully composed work, including female nudes, travel scenes (Britain, Cuba, Texas) and wry jokes, both visual and verbal. There’s a self-portrait with a bear, a low-angle shot of a traffic-clogged street that’s titled “Autofocus” and a picture that exploits perspective to make it appear that London is being menaced by a massive pigeon.
As Spain became more peaceful and prosperous, Socias turned to portraits, notably of actors, authors and film directors. A whole wall is stacked with such images, ranging from Martin Amis to Penelope Cruz. (Pedro Almodovar is also in the show, of course, but not in this array.) The photographer still shoots mostly in black and white, but there are three color portraits: John le Carre in a bright red sweater, Roman Polanski in a bright red shirt and Francis Ford Coppola with a black-and-white cat. Socias may be primarily a newsman, but he has an artist’s sense of pictorial humor.
In the first half of the 19th century, such artists as Hokusai and Hiroshige traveled Japan, which they were forbidden by law to leave, depicting scenic views with compositional verve that’s rarely been rivaled. After American ships forced foreign influences into the country, Japanese art became Westernized, although such subsequent printmakers as Ikuo Hirayama are still classified as exponents of “Nihonga” (literally, “Japan pictures”). “Road of Destiny: Ikuo Hirayama’s Silk Road,” at the Japan Information and Culture Center’s elegantly appointed new location, shows a widely traveled artist whose destination was always back where he started.
Born near Hiroshima in 1930, Hirayama depicted the A-bomb attack that he survived. But he’s probably best known for his Silk Road works, which track the route Buddhism took to his country. Made between 1979 and 1991, the 17 etchings, silkscreens and woodblock prints in this exhibition include scenes of Turkey, Pakistan, India and China. The bulk of the work, however, portrays temples and their environs in three venerable Japanese locations: the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, and the Buddhist refuge atop Mount Koya. Just one of these works, “Woman in Red (Morning on the Ganges),” focuses on a human figure.
Hirayama, who died in 2009, uses traditional Western viewpoints to frame his subjects. Whether the artist is contemplating the Taj Mahal or Nara’s Toshodaiji, the building is at or near the center of the work, observed straight-on. If Hirayama lacks the sly perspectives of his 19th-century predecessors, he boasts colors that are far bolder. This show features richly saturated hues, heavy on nighttime tones but also including bright yellow and orange skies to highlight, respectively, China’s Great Wall and a traditional boat off the coast of Vietnam. Hirayama was unafraid of vivid colors, yet his depictions of Japan show it subtly illuminated by moonlight or cloaked in shadows cast by tall trees. These Zen-like images depict a country that was transformed by Buddhism but that also transformed it.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Feb. 18 at the Curator’s Office, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-387-1008; www.curatorsoffice.com .
on view through Feb. 4 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW; 202-728-1628; www.instituteofmexicodc.org .
on view through Feb. 3 at Japan Information and Culture Center,
1150 18th St. NW, Suite 100; 202-238-6900;