City life, and the pos­si­ble men­ace that lies be­neath Le Vie en Bleu

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MARK JENK­INS style@wash­

So­cial strat­i­fi­ca­tion al­ways looms over Ben Tol­man’s ob­ses­sively de­tailed cityscapes, but life at the bot­tom turns even more threat­en­ing in his new­est draw­ings. The D.C. artist’s Gallery Nep­tune & Brown show, “Weltschmerz,” fea­tures omi­nous vi­gnettes such as “Pur­ple Peo­ple Eater,” in which a large-mouthed beast awaits those un­for­tu­nate enough to hap­pen upon it, one level be­low the street. Its maw may be an al­le­gor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of “Weltschmerz,” a Ger­man phrase that lit­er­ally means “world pain.”

Any­one who saw Tol­man’s 2015 Flash­point show will no­tice a new el­e­ment. Although the draw­ings are still pri­mar­ily black and white, some in­clude col­or­ful ac­cents. “En­trance” fea­tures a mul­ti­hued mound of what could be lava or pro­to­plasm, but the oth­ers in­cor­po­rate just one color, most of­ten red: the rail­ings and guide ropes that di­rect crowds in “Path” and “Queue” and, more sub­tly, the tiny flag a guide uses to lead peo­ple through a halfde­mol­ished neigh­bor­hood in “Tour.” You can guess the color of the spat­ter and pooled, brack­ish runoff in “Pur­ple Peo­ple Eater.”

Tol­man’s themes in­clude reg­i­men­ta­tion, com­mer­cial­ism and the clash of the sub­cul­tures that cities pack into rel­a­tively small ar­eas. In “Mar­ket,” trash and graf­fiti on the lower floors yield to sleek fa­cades and cor­po­rate lo­gos higher up. That pic­ture is one of sev­eral in which the com­po­si­tion cuts off be­low the top. An­other is “For­ward,” in which scores of peo­ple climb stairs that lead to — what? Is there some­thing great above, or just an­other stair­case that leads back down?

Tol­man, who works in­tu­itively, prob­a­bly doesn’t know the an­swer him­self. But his art cap­tures the prom­ise of the ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence, in which amaze­ment might await around the next cor­ner. The sur­prise may not be pleas­ant, but it ap­pears that Tol­man — a Wheaton na­tive — prefers the ur­ban enigma to sub­ur­ban cer­tainty. Weltschmerz: Re­cent Draw­ings by Ben Tol­man On view through Feb. 25 at Gallery Nep­tune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW. 202-986-1200. gallerynep­tune­


“Cut” con­cludes a trio of Greater Re­ston Arts Cen­ter shows, fol­low­ing “Stitch” and “Bead.” Those ti­tles sug­gest art of do­mes­tic means and scale, and most of the work in this six-artist show would in­deed fit into a par­lor. Yet Eric Stan­d­ley has filled one sec­tion of the gallery with a 17-foot-long tree branch, mounted hor­i­zon­tally atop two boul­ders. It’s ti­tled “Daphne,” af­ter the nymph turned into a lau­rel tree by Apollo, ac­cord­ing to Ovid’s “Meta­mor­phoses.”

The piece is brawny yet del­i­cate, be­cause Stan­d­ley has filled with pa­per fil­i­gree the notch that runs nearly the log’s en­tire length. The Blacks­burg artist’s other work is mostly pa­per, seg­mented, re­cessed and in­tri­cately ar­ranged in as many as 174 lay­ers. In­flu­enced by a trip to Dubai, Stan­d­ley’s “Ei­ther/ Or” series riffs on the dec­o­ra­tive style of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture. Re­sem­bling gates, key­holes and or­na­men­tal win­dows, these wall­mounted con­struc­tions evoke both or­der and in­trigue.

Sev­eral other con­trib­u­tors take in­spi­ra­tion from na­ture’s ar­chi­tec­ture. Bev­erly Ress, whose work is of­ten shown lo­cally, con­trasts pre­cise col­ored-pen­cil draw­ings of mu­seum spec­i­mens; these are set off by corkscrew and bas­ket-weave pat­terns carved into the pa­per. A large, wall-mounted as­sem­blage by Bal­ti­more’s Les­lie Shel­low con­sists of two biomor­phic clus­ters con­nected by a spi­ral­ing cord. Bhavna Me­hta, an In­dian-born San Die­gan, snips vine- and leaflike shapes and sus­pends them to cast a lat­tice of shad­ows. As in Stan­d­ley’s work, Me­hta’s cut pa­per is a means of elic­it­ing fan­tas­tic depths.

Cut On view through Feb. 18 at Greater Re­ston Arts Cen­ter, 12001 Mar­ket St., Re­ston. 703-471-9242. re­

There are a lot of red ac­cents in “La Vie en Bleu,” the blue-heavy group ex­hi­bi­tion at the Man­sion at Strath­more. Crim­son flames burst at the cen­ter of Kung Chee-Keong’s abstract draw­ing-paint­ing, and scar­let beads dan­gle through the cen­ter of Jac­que­line Maggi’s as­sem­blage. More play­fully, Richard Foa’s sculp­ture of a clar­inet-play­ing “Blues Crab” fea­tures red pin­cers.

The jazzy crus­tacean is one of the best the­matic fits: The ju­ried show is meant to com­ple­ment Strath­more’s “Shades of Blues” mu­sic festival. But there are more dif­fer­ences than sim­i­lar­i­ties in this ar­ray of paint­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy and more by roughly 100 con­trib­u­tors. The liveli­est work in­cludes Jes­sica Dupuis’s blue-on-blue swirl, made of thou­sands of ce­ramic shards, and Bruce Morgan’s photo com­pos­ite, in which the only azure el­e­ment is a blue-stockinged leg that kicks up from be­hind a sofa.

Oddly, few pieces de­pict two of the bluest things around — wa­ter and sky. Bob Carl­son does give a neoim­pres­sion­ist shim­mer to his paint­ing of a YMCA pool, but the most aquatic en­tries are Artemis Her­ber’s swoops of painted card­board, the larger ones in deep blues and the small ones in paler shades. She calls the lat­ter forms “Flags,” but they curl like waves.

Le Vie en Bleu On view through Feb. 19 at the Man­sion at Strath­more, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. 301-581-5109. strath­ /vis­ual-arts/ex­hi­bi­tions.

Nakeya Brown & Christie Nep­tune

At Hamil­to­nian Gallery, Nakeya Brown and Christie Nep­tune con­struct like­nesses of African Amer­i­can women. It might be said that these are self-por­traits, but not lit­er­ally. Both artists look to the past: Brown’s “Some Assem­bly Re­quired” re­pur­poses her grand­mother’s photo al­bum, while Nep­tune’s “Ms. _______ (In­te­rior)” frames images of con­tem­po­rary women with text that in­vokes a white-racist world­view.

Among Brown’s three dip­ty­chs of fam­ily pho­to­graphs is a snap­shot that shows flowery wall­pa­per. She used sim­i­lar wall­pa­per as the back­drop for stud­ies of out­dated do­mes­tic items, in­clud­ing a cook­ing pot, an alarm clock and some hair con­di­tioner. The pres­ence of women from decades ago is im­plied, yet the ex­act im­age is left to be con­jured by the observer.

Nep­tune uses both pho­tos and video in var­i­ous for­mats to pic­ture black women who gaze obliquely at the viewer. Some of this slo-mo por­trai­ture is ac­com­pa­nied by words that re­call the age of Euro­pean ex­plo­ration. These cor­re­late a sub­ject’s un­known thoughts, as she turns the pages of a book, to the “in­te­rior” of con­ti­nents that were once mys­te­ri­ous to white colo­nial­ists. The quest to un­der­stand strangers, the jux­ta­po­si­tion sug­gests, is as much po­lit­i­cal as psy­cho­log­i­cal. Nakeya Brown: Some Assem­bly Re­quired and Christie Nep­tune: Ms. _______ (In­te­rior) On view through Feb. 18 at Hamil­to­nian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW. 202-3321116. hamil­to­ni­an­


Ben Tol­man’s “For­ward” (2017), ink on pa­per, on view through Feb. 25 in “Weltschmerz” at Gallery Nep­tune & Brown.

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