In the galleries: Focusing on the many guises of the human form

In the galleries: Focusing on the many guises of the human form

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All the artworks in Touchstone Gallery’s “Figure” represent some sort of human presence, but the most vivid pieces are far from literal. Nathan J. Baker’s “Happening as Human,” for example, has two very different aspects. From the front, the scrap-wood sculpture appears as an elementary outline of a person, punctuated by two circular cavities. The side view, however, reveals jagged wooden shards of varying length that jut horizontally from the simple form, conveying dynamism and unpredictability.

The exhibition was juried from a national call and features entries by more than 80 artists from D.C. and 31 states. The artistic strategies on display reach from the archetypal to the autobiographical, with a few detours into the political.

Joan Stolz’s “Skin in the Game” consists of 64 small square paintings, each a realistic close-up of part of the face of a member of the Trump administration or one of its ideological allies. Stolz is a skilled painter who, at least in this case, is more interested in depicting disposition than physiognomy. Many of the tightly cropped mouths are smirking, sneering or shouting.

Less specific but equally ominous is a red-painted stoneware sculpture by Janathel Shaw, a Touchstone regular. Her “Looking Beyond the Veil” places an upturned head on a coffin-like form. If the head is gazing toward heaven, a less celestial symbol of an afterlife is bursting from the figure’s boxy torso: a skull whose white surface and black eye sockets present a vision of the body stripped of flesh and vitality.

In keeping with the traditions of figurative art, many of the artworks depict female nudes — but often not traditionally. Esperanza Alzona streamlines a woman’s anatomy to just a curved back, cast in shiny aluminum, while Sally Dion shapes three rounded torsos from paper, suggesting both solid bodies and gauzy clothing. In Mike Gordon’s hyperrealist pencil drawing, the only clue that the woman is submerged is the way her hair swirls above her head, floating toward the water’s surface.

Seemingly the least corporeal artwork is a piece Nicole Maloof calls a “self portrait”: a mound of industrial-looking pods whose overall shape vaguely resembles a slumped body. The capsules were cast from infusion sets that the artist, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 4, used to administer insulin. This invocation of the blood that flows through Maloof’s own flesh is the show’s most abstract rendering of the human figure, but arguably also the most personal.

Figure Through Feb. 19 at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW (online through March 31). touchstonegallery.com. 202-682-4125.

Lynn Sures

The upward thrusting shapes in Lynn Sures’s “Catalunya” don’t merely represent Montserrat, the mountain range that borders Barcelona. In her statement, the Maryland artist says the 25 pictures in her Pyramid Atlantic Art Center show were “generated from the sensibility of the mountain.” This claim is bolstered by her method, which has a geologic quality.

Made while the artist was on location, the abstracted renderings of the range (whose name means “serrated mountain” in Catalan) were executed with pigmented paper pulp, arranged on wet handmade paper in a method that resembles painting. Sures employed two varieties of pulp, abaca or flax. The former is thinner, fuzzier and more fabric-like; the latter is thicker and craggier, qualities the artist emphasizes by embossing curving fissures into the pulp. These fractures curl sideways through the pictures like fault lines in a landscape chiseled by wind and water.

There are lots of earth tones in “Catalunya,” but the colors are not strictly documentary. Sures also employs many blues and some red, as well as metallic gold and silver. Most of the pulp paintings are horizontal, as befits a landscape, but some are upright. Both formats emphasize verticality, even when that quality is offset by incised lines that meander from left to right. Whether seen as boulders, fingers or the teeth of a saw, the pulpy forms reach for the sky.

Lynn Sures: Catalunya Through Feb. 18 at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 4318 Gallatin St., Hyattsville. pyramidatlanticartcenter.org. 301-608-9101.

Eternal Paper

Pulp painting is an uncommon technique, but one practiced in many corners of the world. That’s demonstrated by “Eternal Paper,” a 20-artist exhibition that includes contributors originally from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. The UMGC Arts Program Gallery show was curated by veteran local printmaker Helen C. Frederick, whose influence on the area’s paper-oriented art scene is so formidable that Pyramid Atlantic’s gallery is dedicated to her.

The selected artworks address many topics, and incorporate non-pulp elements such as paint, ink, wood, digital printing and found objects. But pulp painting and handmade paper are common, and the use of plant fiber inspires thoughts of organic metamorphoses. “The fact that there is change from liquid to solid implies the presence of natural energies that are inherent in the process itself,” writes Frederick in her catalogue essay.

Thus Elsabé Johnson Dixon incorporates actual wings of spotted lantern fly, an invasive species, into a mandala-like circular piece whose patterns revolve around a central black circle. Nicole Donnelly punctuates a forestlike abstraction with real branches of kozo, whose inner bark is used in East Asia to make paper. Among Frederick’s own contributions are stylized depictions of “healing stones” in earthy and often spattered hues.

A similar if more subdued color scheme characterizes the paper that was handmade by Tongji Philip Qian, in part by pulping newsprint advertisements from groceries east of the Anacostia River. The brownish tones are provided by a condiment popular in takeout restaurants in D.C.’s African American neighborhoods: a concoction the China-born artist’s statement identifies as “a purportedly Chinese sauce called mumbo sauce.”

Two local artists use paper to recast themes familiar from their other work. Cheryl Edwards has long drawn inspiration from dolls made in pre-colonial Egypt and South Africa, and here offers images of these figurines painted in multicolored pulp. Claudia “Aziza” Gibson-Hunter uses handmade paper in intricate 3D constructions to embody, according to her statement, the African American yearning for “escape from oppression and the return to the motherland.” As the eccentric forms take flight from the wall, the fibrous material roots the artworks in the natural world.

Eternal Paper Through May 19 at UMGC Arts Program Gallery, College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 3501 University Blvd. East, Adelphi. umgc.edu. 301-985-7937.

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