In the galleries: Multimedia show explores the nuances of Black life

In the galleries: Multimedia show explores the nuances of Black life

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Not every feeling lends itself to street protests. After the outrage that followed George Floyd’s murder and so many other injustices against African Americans, the three Black artists in VisArts’s “Contours of the Interior” step back to consider what a gallery note calls “opacity, quiet, withholding and mundanity.” The result is one of three intriguing shows at the Rockville venue, where Kei Ito and Emily Francisco are also exhibiting.

While all their work favors black or black-and-white, the methods of the “Interior” artists are otherwise diverse. Lola Ayisha Ogbara makes glazed stoneware in forms that appear both solid and slippery, idiosyncratic and traditional. Sasha-Kay Nicole photographs herself, occasionally with a cohort, in performances that involve covering her head with a black bag. Zakkiyyah Najeebah Dumas-O’Neal evokes “elsewhere” with photographs and videos of watery scenes, and offers a densely layered drawing that features areas of text. (Nicole lives in Jamaica, and the other two are based in Chicago.)

Curated by Gervais Marsh, VisArts’s 2023 emerging curator, “Contours of the Interior” is hushed but not entirely quiet. The lapping of gentle surf accompanies a Dumas-O’Neal video, and one of Ogbara’s sculptures has a laugh track. The contrast between the two sounds highlights the three artists’ emotional range. Their work is personal, but it touches on the universal.

End of carousel

The central event of Kei Ito’s life didn’t happen to him. The Tokyo-born Baltimorean’s grandfather survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a cataclysm that haunts his grandson’s multimedia installations. The latest is “A Dream of Armageddon,” which takes its title from an H.G. Wells story and conjures a foreboding landscape from simple materials and effects.

The floor-level piece consists of 100 small high-contrast photographs of model houses, reversed on black backdrops and placed among a variety of lightbulbs, some of which blink. The pulsing lights complement the pictures, in which the houses are fiery shades of yellow and red, as if reflecting the colors of a nearby conflagration. Viewers may think of Hiroshima, but the piece also evokes other conflagrations, including the burgeoning number of recent wildfires that have turned communities to ash. The gallery is quiet and not uncomfortably warm, but to walk through it is be led into an inferno.

Another plugged-in artwork, Francisco’s “The Ocular Harpsichord Revisited,” is a discarded old instrument wired to an array of vertical video screens. Pressing the keys yields notes, but certain ones also activate live video of the player. Both aspects of the device are somewhat broken: The harpsichord is battered, and the video is distorted.

As the show’s title indicates, this whimsical apparatus is a redesign of an earlier one. Yet the D.C. artist is still exploring the same concerns, among them the nature of time and the role of humans in technological systems. Francisco invented the ocular harpsichord, but its purpose is fulfilled only when a passerby strikes the keys.

Contours of the Interior, Kei Ito: A Dream of Armageddon and Emily Francisco: The Ocular Harpsichord Revisited Francisco through Jan. 14; “Contours” and Ito through Jan. 21 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200.

María Luisa Pacheco

Innovative Bolivian painter María Luisa Pacheco spent nearly half her life in the third place listed in the title of her Art Museum of the Americas retrospective, “Geographies of Abstraction — Madrid, La Paz, New York.” But her most striking pictures reflect her birth country’s mountainous geography. (Pacheco, who died in 1982, was in Madrid for only about a year.) In her later work, the artist employed sand, gesso and balsa wood to construct 3D paintings whose earth-toned features suggest boulders, peaks and valleys.

Pacheco wasn’t originally an abstractionist, or even a committed painter. She began as a commercial artist and took a job as a newspaper illustrator that led to a stint as the director of the paper’s cultural section. A painting fellowship in 1951 took her to Spain, where she encountered cubism and other styles that fractured images into geometric blocks and planes. The influence of her European sojourn, which included visits to France and Italy, is evident in this show. But the selection also features realistic sketches and portraits, notably a painting from 1966, a decade after she moved to New York.

Interestingly, one of the things that established Pacheco in the United States was a 1957 invitation to exhibit her work at the Organization of American States, two decades before it created the museum that hosts this show. Her style developed in tandem with New York’s abstract expressionism, yet her primary models were European and Bolivian. Layering paint and other materials, Pacheco invoked the landscape of her youth in paintings that appear craggy and feel vast.

María Luisa Pacheco: Geographies of Abstraction — Madrid, La Paz, New York Through Jan. 21 at the Art Museum of the Americas, Organization of American States, 201 18th St. NW. museum.oas.org. 202-370-0147.

Tony Hope likes to work under the cover of darkness. The Detroit artist’s previous Von Ammon Co. show, presented about two years ago, was a miniature golf course whose holes were modeled on “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. In the blacked-out gallery, the installation was visible principally because its Day-Glo features glowed under ultraviolet lights. Hope’s “Home, Sweet Home” is even dimmer, with just one source of illumination: the headlights of a half-size model of an ice cream truck, which makes a complete rotation every 45 minutes so that its beams briefly reveal the other artworks.

On one wall are oversize cereal boxes decorated with Christmas themes, painted exactingly on canvas. The 3D creations appear mostly to be facsimiles of actual product packages — one of them a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes carton with a Norman Rockwell Santa — but with some elements invented by the artist. On the opposite side are mixed-media, multilevel photo-collages that include cereal imagery among many other commercial visuals.

The ice cream truck is not just central to the show’s layout, but also the most striking object on exhibit. Formerly a set designer for Insane Clown Posse, the Detroit “horrorcore” hip-hop duo, Hope is a skilled fabricator. The truck features scary clown faces and an array of mounted weaponry, including rockets and machine guns. The vehicle might seem to be the product of the artist’s nightmares, but in fact it is modeled on one from the video game “Twisted Metal.” Hope doesn’t need to invent ominous visions of American pop culture. He can just replicate ones that are all around him.

Tony Hope: Home, Sweet Home Through Jan. 14 at Von Ammon Co., 3330 Cady’s Alley NW. vonammon.co. 202-893-9797.

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