In the galleries: Artist pushes her envelope of experimentation

From the ways they shimmer and undulate, Jenny Wu’s painting-sculpture hybrids appear to be delicate. But an unexpected aspect of the artist’s creations is divulged by one of her characteristically whimsical titles: “Work Out So Hopefully I Can Be Strong Enough to Carry My Paintings.” The assemblages in Wu’s Morton Fine Art show, “It Depends,” are made from thick multiple coats of latex paint that have been poured, dried and then cut into pieces. The resulting artworks are as heavy in weight as they are light in effect.

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Wu has been refining her method for years, building mosaics of paint shards atop surfaces whose contrasting colors are visible through gaps, usually but not always tiny. This show includes some unfamiliar formats, including a hexagonal construction whose earth-toned strands fit together like fibers woven into a basket. But the most notable development is a newfound cohesion in the work of the China-born artist, a Washingtonian who is currently a visiting assistant professor at Trinity College in Connecticut.

Where Wu’s style used to emphasize small chunks of multicolored, multilayered paint, her new work more often consists of horizontally aligned strips. These are sometimes organized in rainbow-like gradations but more often stretch across the picture in a manner that hints at landscape paintings. (They don’t directly resemble traditional Chinese works, but those are an influence.) The pictures whose bands gently curve are particularly geographic, whether they evoke fields or oceans. Wu’s painstakingly clustered bits and bands have never appeared more unified, or more redolent of the wider world.

Jenny Wu: It Depends Through March 16 at Morton Fine Art, 52 O St. NW, #302. mortonfineart.com 202-628-2787.

Erik Thor Sandberg

In the earliest of the seven paintings in Erik Thor Sandberg’s “Strange Attractors,” a skeleton holds one end of an old man’s long beard, atop of which is perched a tiny city of red buildings. Not all the D.C. neoclassical painter’s visions are urban, but each depicts a miniature place that’s distinctive and self-contained. The most recent pictures in the Connersmith show portray planetlike worlds, roughly spherical and teeming with human and animal life.

Sandberg describes himself as a “narrative artist,” but he’s not telling stories people already know, like the biblical or mythological tales illustrated by the 15th- and 16th-century painters whose techniques he emulates. Each parable is invented from scratch and reflects the artist’s personal concerns and private symbols. These are rendered with consummate skill in a style that melds those of Italian and Dutch masters.

Five paintings, all large squares with black backgrounds, acutely juxtapose life and loss. They feature nude women — sensuous, vital and timeless — alongside such symbolic creatures as an owl (traditionally signifying wisdom) and a headless serpent coiled in a loop (expressing infinity). Two of the planetoids are made of bone, suggesting death; another pair are translucent bowls or spheres filled with fluid, perhaps amniotic. The last is a clump of tree trunks, woody but arranged in a configuration that resembles a human heart. In Sandberg’s fantastical compositions, body and environment nearly meld while eternity and mortality diverge.

Erik Thor Sandberg: Strange Attractors Through March 22 at Connersmith, 1013 O St. NW. connersmith.us.com. 202-588-8750.

Cwiok & Camicia

While Robert Cwiok and Kathryn Camicia each specialize in swirls, their adjacent Studio Gallery exhibitions reveal different strategies. Cwiok’s “Pivot/Echo” consists of paintings and prints whose curving, clean-colored forms are distinct and hard-edge. Although the title of Camicia’s show is “Influence of the Earth,” her paintings feature billowing forms and liquid hues that evoke water and air.

Although most of Cwiok’s pieces are paintings, they seem to be informed by printmaking, and the few prints are among the most effective pictures. Both varieties of artwork simulate depth by making serpentine bands appear to lap over and under each other. The paintings somewhat resemble Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, but with less regular patterns. The prints add another element: squares of color with internal patterns, through which the bending strips meander. The blocks call attention to the grid that underlies the compositions, and their contrast with the twisting bands accentuates the kinetic energy of Cwiok’s approach.

Camicia mixes latex, oil and Flashe (vinyl) paints, and tempers them with solvents, to make nature-inspired abstractions that are as rich in texture as color. The pigments have dried, and sometimes cracked, but they retain glimmers of their former fluidity. So the black-within-blue blob in “Untitled #3” feels mutable and active, like a cloud that will transform its shape momentarily. Yellows and oranges dominate many of these canvases, giving them a sunny quality, yet the pictures are simultaneously turbulent. Cwiok and Camicia’s styles share little, but they have a common dynamism.

Robert Cwiok: Pivot/Echo and Kathryn Camicia: Influence of the Earth Through March 23 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW. studiogallerydc.com. 202-232-8734.

Labor of Fire

“The repetition. It’s soothing. Exhausting.” So says a legend that flashes on the screen during Janet E. Dandridge’s video in which a woman, superimposed doubly to represent multitudes, cares for an infant. The multiple-tiered video screens in “Labor of Fire,” a show at the newly renovated D.C. Arts Center spotlights three artists, two of them local.

Curator Benedetta Castrioto borrowed the phrase “Labor of Fire” from Italian American academic Bruno Gullì’s 2005 book of that title, which discusses work done apart from traditional notions of productivity. That includes making art, but also tasks that people, most often women, do without pay. Mothering children is a notable example, as is cleaning. Detroit artist Fanni Somogyi documents the maintenance of a studio in a video that plays inside a small, roughly made aluminum frame. She also arrays such pertinent found items as an old dustpan and brush.

Most visually striking are Isabella Whitfield’s meticulous layouts of individual rice grains, placed in rows fixed by plaster and clay inside large flat bowls that are mounted on the wall. These pieces are the result of performances, and a nearby table piled with rice seems to await the artist’s renewed action. But the bowls lined with grain stand by themselves, precise yet beautifully earthy. Their repetition is soothing.

Labor of Fire Through March 17 at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. dcartscenter.org. 202-462-7833.

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