Art galleries focus on the less pretty aspects of nature

“I am thrilled by the violence of nature,” Olivia Rodriguez writes of her recent work. A few months ago, when Washington’s museums and galleries were filled with images of natural beauty, that might have seemed like an odd statement. But this season is over. Currently, local art spaces are showing rot, maggots and mold.

Rodriguez’s “Immortal Decay” in the Curator’s Office features mushrooms and other fungi, as well as various types of insects and molluscs, feeding on both natural (wood, earth) and lesser (chewing- gum, a half-eaten hamburger). Some of the flora and fauna are attached directly to the walls, as if the gallery’s pristine white interior is in fact teeming with unruly life. The objects appear so real that they appear to be real organisms, preserved under some kind of plastic covering. But they are actually made from epoxy resin and painted with acrylic pigments; dozens of things in the show, a single block of dirt is actually what it seems.

Rodriguez’s job could be even more divisive. British bad-boy artist Damien Hirst exhibited dead animals, as small as butterflies and as big as sharks, as works of art. Rodriguez’s sculptures are more orderly than that, but remain a calculated offense to the idea of ​​heroic, uplifting, and beautiful art. But then, beauty is a matter of opinion – and convention. “The most beautiful universe is the sweepings piled up at random”, wrote the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Compared to this unsentimental assessment, “Immortal Decay” is quite sweet. After all, that includes ladybugs.

‘Scholars Converge 2012’

Selin Balci does not make art about biology; she lets biology do the art. His “Contaminations” feature microbial growth on planks, which are then arranged in patterns that give order to the random bloom of black, gray and green. Balci’s subtle and slightly chilling work is included in two current group exhibitions of young artists: “Academy 2012” at Conner Contemporary Art and “Fellows Converge 2012: Obstructions” at the Hamiltonian Gallery.

This latest exhibition showcases the artists who have had Hamilton grants this year, who have been asked to work under certain constraints or “obstructions”. (The premise comes from Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth’s 2003 film, “The Five Obstructions,” in which von Trier placed severe limits on five Leth-directed shorts.) The funniest (and most impossible) for this concept art company? “Making a piece that is not concept driven.”

Anna U. Davis. “Modern Plague”, acrylic, paper and ink. (Courtesy of Anna U. Davis and The Gallery at BloomBars)

Obstacles placed in Hamiltonians’ paths did not significantly impede them; the resulting works resemble those the artists have previously shown. Highlights include Joyce Yu-Jean Lee’s slightly pixelated video of eight restless people slumped in a cell, as if trapped in Old Master painting; Sarah Knebel’s large, upward-facing photocollage of many different types of flowers, all digitally grafted onto the branches of a single tree; and Nora Howell’s Asian-style lanterns, whose simple black-and-white illustrations of city life were made with the help of people who live in her Baltimore apartment building. These neighbors don’t seem to have bothered her at all.

“Academy 2012”

Balci is just one of nearly two dozen artists featured in “Academy 2012,” a survey of recent graduates from the region’s leading art schools. In addition to mould, media includes painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, installation and, of course, video. Nature is a motif in works such as “Where the Wild Tulips Grow” by Pablo Garcia Lopez, a video loop in which purple ichor seeps into white flowers and then recedes. Somewhat related are Adam Nelson’s “Alluvion,” a wall sculpture whose petals suggest both natural and machined forms, and Josh Charles’ intricate designs of tendrils and birds. But flowers such as Alexander Pearce’s “Jan Brueghel Flower Painting” are more about art history than botany.

Ryan Carr Johnson and Samuel Scharf take aim, too literally, at past art trends with “Noland AD” and “Frankenthaler AD” – 1960s-style color field paintings updated with gold paint and bullet holes. Wesley Clark’s “Four Five Six” features two large slabs of weathered wood, painted with parts of a target. (Kenneth Noland often painted target shapes.) In addition to shooting, there are kisses, although Zachary Goldman’s “The Kissing Glass” is designed to keep lips from touching. Next to the device are Windexes, squeegees and paper towels to clean up leftover emotion.

As in Conner’s previous student shows, the pieces are eclectic and well-crafted, if less than surprising. “Pure” abstraction is rare, graffiti remains influential, and suburban images are common. Videographers like Heather Stratton and Misha Capecchi show video art’s usual focus on ritual and repetition. The text isn’t as common as it often is in today’s visual art, but “Reversed, Expanded, Exploded—POPped!” by Toym Imao. uses words to reveal doubt about contemporary art (or at least its biggest stars). This intricate painting/installation depicts a fire-damaged Jeff Koons amid strips of paper cut from a well-known parable: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen.

Anna U. Davis

Swedish-bred DC artist Anna U. Davis doesn’t show much interest in nature, aside from that branch of zoology that includes human sexuality; there are carnal details in his show to Bloom bars. These mixed-media paintings focus instead on society, sometimes benign but often a little disturbing. “I start by drawing something that bothers me,” she writes, “and I end up doing something that makes me feel good.”

Among the things that bother her is the American healthcare system, the subject of an image centered on a square cross, with the figures of four men – judge, doctor, pharmacist, insurance claims agent – placed to make the cross look like a swastika. It’s the most politically-sharp work in the series, but there’s social commentary in the details of the other paintings, which incorporate glossy magazine images of hair, cars, guns, meat and internal organs in scenes featuring multiracial people — gray-skinned and pink-lipped — whom Davis calls “Frocasian.”

Outlined in bold black lines and rendered in an angular style, akin to cubism, the artist’s subjects are flat, but glued elements add a sense of depth. Some of the paintings include mosaic-like backgrounds of painted squares that suggest a third dimension. It is therefore no exaggeration for Davis to include a relief sculpture, “The Reluctant Builder”, among the paintings. This figure of a guitarist, seated on his amp, is as anchored to the wall as the other works, yet his escape from the picture plane seems complete.

Adam Nelson. “Alluvia”, 2012; PETG plastic, screen-printed images, steel, light. (Copyright Adam Nelson, courtesy Conner Contemporary Art)

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Olivia Rodriguez: Immortal Decay

on view through Aug. 4 at the Curator’s Office, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-387-1008; www.curatorsoffice.com.

2012 Converge Fellows: Obstacles

on view through August 11 at the Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, Suite 101; 202-332-1116; hamiltoniangallery.com.

Academy 2012

on view through August 18 at Conner Contemporary Art, 1358 Florida Ave. BORN; 202-588-8750, www.connercontemporary.com.

Anna U. Davis

on view through Aug. 5 at The Gallery at Bloombars, 3222 11th St. NW; 202-567-7713; www.bloombars.com.

Mildred D. Field