Having reached the outer limits of abstraction and conceptualism, contemporary art has rediscovered words. This isn’t altogether a good thing; art-schooled jargon can be as ugly as the grisliest of images. One solution is to subcontract the text to an experienced writer, as Langley Spurlock did for his ingenious “Secrets of the Elements 3: Dark Matters.” This series of tributes to oxygen, lead and such, on display at Studio Gallery, is complemented by the poetry of John Martin Tarrat.
With a periodic-table theme to hold the sequence together, Spurlock was free to vary style and form. Fine-art purists may dismiss these 21 prints, sculptures and 3-D assemblages as illustrations, which they are. But they’re illustrations of a high order: clever, versatile and frequently amusing. “Californium 98” is a skateboard with motifs from the flag of the state from which the element derives its name; “Xenon” depicts a rocket’s liftoff in shaped glass tubing that glows purple with an illuminated noble gas.
The artist’s lighthearted attitude can also encompass horrible historical errors: The Romans’ enthusiasm for consuming lead is commemorated with a signboard for Roma “ketchup” that mimics a partially decayed ancient frieze.
The main pieces — there are also posters with quick, flip slogans for 72 elements — play on both the substances and their names. “Silicon” is a collage that includes sandpaper and glass, while “Mendelevium” combines images of the Moscow subway station named for Dmitry Mendeleyev, who pioneered the periodic table. “Meitnerium,” the first element named for a woman, is a deconstructed box that holds artifacts from a quick getaway: Austrian physicist Lise Meitner fled the Nazis in 1938, just after realizing the possibility of a nuclear explosive. The mostly white “Phosphorous” recalls a simpler but still devastating payload: the firebombs dropped on Dresden and other German cities.
Each artwork is accompanied by a business card that contains a Tarrat poem. These are called haiku, and some approximate that Japanese form. The poet occasionally goes well beyond the 17-syllable limit of English-language haiku, but the best ones are pithy, such as this ode to mercury: “Madness of hatters / hotbloodedness of dragons / Mercury rising.” Spurlock and Tarrat approach life’s basics with a fundamental lack of respect, which is appealingly human. Mockery is one redeeming quality of the carbon-based life-forms that made phosphorus and plutonium into weapons.
Photographs are commonly said to “freeze” a moment, but Min Enghauser had some help in that regard. Her gorgeous images of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert depict an area where lack of water has stopped motion almost as completely as a shutter’s click. Things change in the desert, of course; those fuchsia yucca blossoms seen in close-up won’t flower forever. Yet the rock and baked-clay landscapes of her “Desert Dwell” series, on display at Hillyer Art Space, barely fluctuate — save for the quality of light. Enghauser, an Alexandria-based artist, finds drama not only in the vivid red sky of “Fish Creek Wash, Number Two” but also in shimmering highlights on the spines of a lone hedgehog cactus.
While there’s a vastness to these images, Enghauser doesn’t simply point her camera at open land or distant horizons. She provides a sense of scale by focusing on smaller features, sometimes with a sweeping vista as its background. “Wash Bottom, Number One” shows just dry earth, cracked like broken pottery; “Creosote Bush” evokes dusk without showing more than a few centimeters of twilight.
When the photographer looks up, it’s usually toward the clouds, which are as colorful as anything on the ground. “Mine Wash, Number Twenty and Twenty-One” is a diptych of piles of orange rubble under a rich blue sky filled with multi-hued clouds. Those rocks aren’t going anywhere, yet Enghauser’s images never seem static. They buzz with slow life.
David Mordini also has a taste for close-ups, but his are rendered in sculpture. His “Dis-member” is a series of human arms, which jut like gnarled branches from the walls of Hillyer’s largest gallery. They’re made from fiberboard, and their visible grain emphasizes their woodiness. An oversize head, which sits glumly on the floor, observes the scene. But it’s the forest of arms — complete with acrylic nails half-polished in chipped pink, red or white — that dominate the room.
Mordini says his work “explores psychological complexities,” yet it seems intensely physical. “Dis-member” shows how easily the ordinary, plucked from its everyday context, becomes profoundly strange.
One of the ’70s art-rockers who sought a way forward by slipping sideways, Brian Eno peeled most of the expected elements from his music, leaving ambient buzzes and burbles. Champneys Taylor’s “The Phono-Graphic Cycle” was inspired by Eno’s 1975 album, “Another Green World” — and not just its sounds. These nine abstract canvases, on view at the District of Columbia Arts Center, also riff on the disc’s cover, a simplified image of figures and landscape. Tom Phillips’s cover art, like Eno’s music, is not so much uncomplicated as decomplicated.
When making these paintings, Taylor worked mostly in acrylic, adding some metallic-silver spray paint and a few collage elements. The pictures employ a mix of freehand and hard-edge shapes and a sort of Caribbean palette, heavy (or light) on pastels. The vertical bands and mounds inevitably suggest landscape, while the more liquid areas evoke water.
The painter didn’t entirely forgo complications, however. Where Phillips’s illustration employs flat blocks of color, Taylor includes painterly effects, such as visible strokes and drips. The most striking canvas, “August Noon,” uses hazy areas of metallic silver to create a sense of depth. There’s not a lot of drama in these works, as there isn’t on “Another Green World.” But they’re a little too layered to achieve Eno-like blankness.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Nov. 19 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW; 202-232-8734; www.studiogallerydc.com.
on view through Nov. 23 at Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW; 202-338-0680; www.artsandartists.org/hillyer.html.
on view through Sunday at D.C. Arts Center; 202-462-7833; www.dcartscenter.org.