In the galleries: Illustrating our broken relationship with the Earth

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The environmental and social justice themes of “Fragile Beauty” are mostly expressed with paint, ink and pixels, but some of the 33 Washington artists in this juried exhibition at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ I Street Galleries work with materials that are import laden. Gloria Vasquez mounts an elegant bowl made of onion skins and shards of aluminum on a rack of dried vines, and Patrick McDonough paints a beehive pattern on disused solar panels. These artists merge the natural and the industrial in both imagery and actuality.

Some of the other artists use media that, while not metaphorical, is rare and distinctive. In Jessica van Brakle’s drawing-painting, made in part with mica-infused pigments, a tree mixes with machines to represent human effects on the landscape. Monica Jahan Bose’s installation juxtaposes rice and lentils in silver dishes with hanging saris. Michèle Colburn indirectly reflects on violence in beautiful abstractions executed in watercolor mixed with gunpowder. Regina Miele’s aerial views of the degraded atmosphere evoke steam with charcoal and charcoal dust.

Many artists focus on endangered people, places or animals. Frank Hallam Day’s dramatically lit photos document Ghanaian boatmen battling overfishing. Barry D. Lindley’s delicate watercolors depict drilling rigs in the oil-contaminated Gulf of Mexico. Steven Muñoz’s exceptionally detailed, poster-like woodcuts list threats to bees and butterflies. Amanda Sauer’s eight-photo series, made over seven years, chronicles a DC tree destroyed by invading beetles. Further, Werllayne Nunes realistically paints an exuberant girl in front of a Brazilian favela transformed from slum to wonderland by the insertion of whimsical domes of gold leaf.

Themes aside, “Fragile Beauty” is an impressive survey of contemporary DC artists with solid work from people who have recently exhibited elsewhere, including Chris Combs, Anna U Davis, Cheryl D. Edwards, Michael Iacovone, and Alexandra Silverthorne. It may not be an optimistic show, but the impression it offers of the DC art scene bodes well.

fragile beauty Until July 1 at I Street GalleriesDC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 200 I St. SE.

Water takes on a myriad of forms, much like Julio Valdez’s paintings and etchings on watery surfaces and depths. The artist’s “layer mapping” begins with detailed, photorealistic renderings of shimmering blue-green expanses, inspired by the sea that bathes his hometown, the Dominican Republic. But his exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas also includes images that use a more folksy mode, as well as a few that are realistic in style but not in color, depicting water in shades of red.

Valdez, who divides his time between Washington and New York, often paints beings partially or entirely underwater. He skillfully depicts human limbs – or fish, lizards or vegetation – as distorted by the ripples and reflections playing across the ocean. Some of the images are as benign as a day at the beach, but others smack of danger. A sea full of bodies suggests the victims of the Middle Passage, or disastrous attempts to navigate to the safety of the troubled lands of the Caribbean.

The political implications of such scenes become more explicit in Valdez’s mixed-media drawings of police violence and victims, as well as “I Can’t Breathe” protesters. The show also features rainforest scenes in earthy hues and a print room that includes “Brother and Plantanos,” in which the outline of a man’s face emerges from an oval filled with plantains. As in Valdez’s water images, person and environment cannot be separated.

Julio Valdez: Mapping Layers Until July 12 at the Art Museum of the Americas201 18th St. NW.

At first glance, Eto Otitigbe’s paintings at Morton Fine Art do not seem to have much to do with his more well-known undertakings, which are public sculptures. But the swirling, inky facades of the artist’s “Material Remains: Consider This a Plan, a Series of Plans” are inscribed with intricate patterns that have an architectural quality. These half-hidden forms suggest plans, albeit for purely theoretical structures.

Otitigbe, who teaches sculpture at Brooklyn College, typically paints on valchromat, a variety of colored plywood introduced about 25 years ago. The artist buries the bright colors of the material under a predominantly black paint, which contrasts the lines engraved by a computer-controlled process. Cleanly cut designs are as precise as the applied pigment is loose and smudged.

The artist is a member of the design team for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, and his paintings indirectly allude to the hidden history of African Americans. But they can also be seen as embodying the hidden structures that underlie a seemingly disordered universe. Trained as an engineer at MIT and Stanford, Otitigbe imposes a structure while indulging in pictorial intuition.

Eto Otitigbe: Remaining material: Consider this a blueprint, a series of blueprints Until June 28 at Morton’s Fine Arts52 O St. NW, #302. Open by appointment.

The title of Adah Rose Gallery’s “A Charm Invests a Face” is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson that refers to an “imperfectly seen” face. This sentence does not apply to the oils of Judith Peck, whose style is derived from classical Dutch painting. The haunting renderings of women against dark backgrounds are impeccably done, though they represent themes and moods more than individuals. The subject of ‘Indifference’ wears a blindfold, while in ‘Facing Darkness’ she turns her back on the viewer – two strategies for looking away from the world or other people’s gaze.

Sarah Kahle’s portraits, mostly of people from the LGBTQ community, are direct yet impressionistic, softened by the use of watercolor. The show’s third contributor, Olivia Alonso Gough, is a photographer whose depictions are doubly environmental: they show people in their homes, often flanked by real or simulated plants. Gough’s “JV” is lit like a Renaissance canvas, but could hardly be less formal. It depicts a person slumped on the ground, partly supported by a sofa, and looking askance. Like Peck’s half-hidden women, the subject of the picture is both central and somehow absent.

Olivia Alonso Gough, Sarah Kahle and Judith Peck: a charm invests a face Until June 30 at Adah Rose Gallery3766 Howard Ave, Kensington.

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