Review | In the galleries: Exhibits stress our duty to care for the natural world

For more than a dozen local artists involved in two group shows, restoring the natural world is more than an artistic exercise. It’s a moral imperative that leads some beyond depiction to action.

Representations of nature dominate “Moving Beyond Beauty: Reverence and Reclamation,” at the McLean Project for the Arts, but often the materials are as important as the imagery. Jacqui Crocetta’s collage-paintings, which suggest close-up views of woods and fields, are made from dots of paint and remnants of single-use plastic washed up on beaches. Maggie Gourlay, whose subjects include invasive plants, uses recycled screen prints to construct 3D simulated tree growth rings.

Subject and surface nearly fuse in the elemental quartet of foreboding landscapes June Linowitz painted on fabric. Her “Planet in Peril Water” portrays a flood that inundates houses and seems to drip beyond the frame via blue and green ribbons that dangle below the picture. A similar unity of image and material characterizes Elzbieta Sikorska’s semiabstract renderings of trees and rocks on artist-made paper and Adjoa Jackson Burrowes’s foliage-patterned pictures, one of which is rolled into a cone-shaped sculpture.

The piece that most closely links “Moving Beyond Beauty” to the Athenaeum’s sculpture show “A Delicate Balance” is Crocetta’s “Deluge,” which also recycles single-use plastic. Hanging sheets and pods of blue-painted film appear to threaten a boat-shaped form suspended in their midst. The large installation is related in both thematic and literal substance to Lisa Rosenstein’s Athenaeum piece “Flow,” a waterfall of shredded clear plastic.

The Athenaeum exhibition “explores the idea of achieving equilibrium,” according to the gallery’s statement. Curator Jackie Hoysted’s picks include several that are playful: David Mordini’s feathered creature with 3D-printed chicken feet and a translucent cartoon-baby head; Akemi Maegawa’s colorful miniatures, made largely of stoneware, paper and fabric and arrayed like tiny pastries; and Steve Wanna’s interactive contraption, which employs ambient sound to jiggle the water in clear acrylic pans.

Rosenstein’s sculpture is just one of four that express equilibrium by suspending objects in midair. Sookkyung Park dangles a cloud of stitched-together paper rounds, and Shanthi Chandrasekar hangs strings of metal-mesh disks whose sizes diminish as if to visualize attenuating sounds. Ceci Cole McInturff uses organic matter, which her statement says “can be interpreted as hopeful,” in her assemblage, but with a twist. The strands she hangs like vines from a curved branch are actually horsehair.

Mounted high on the wall are the show’s most functional objects, a trio of bat houses made by Evie Altman with the design assistance of Marxe Orbach. Built of repurposed wood and painted with illustrations of three different species of bat, these potential shelters for threatened animals exemplify hope for environmental renewal.

Moving Beyond Beauty: Reverence and Reclamation Through Feb. 17 at McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. 703-790-1953.

A Delicate Balance Through Feb. 18 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. 703-548-0035.

Of the artworks on display at the MEI Art Gallery, Marwa Al Khalifa’s “Yellow & Blue” might seem to best represent the current show’s title, “The Sea of Life: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Kingdom of Bahrain.” But the artist’s land-like shapes lapped by expanses of blue are actually abstracted from photographs of leaves floating on the surface of pool. The piece suggests, but doesn’t literally depict, the island nation whose name can be translated as “two seas.”

Historically, freshwater springs have been as important to Bahrain as the ocean, but they’re disappearing or becoming brackish. Jaafar Al Oraibi hints at this by incorporating actual salt into a black-and-white drawing of a briny lake. Mashael Alsaie’s watery photo of a submerged swimmer alludes to local mythology about a woman who transformed into a spring — one that, in reality, ran dry in the 1980s. The solid also appears to turn liquid in Jamal AlYousif’s elegant glass sculpture of three faces, one isolated and the other two merging like converging streams.

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Tradition underlies modernism in Abbas Yousif’s mixed-media “This Is Your Name,” which draws on Arabic calligraphy, and Nasser Al Yousif’s “Roots,” a neo-primitivist painting. But there are also stylized renderings of contemporary Bahrain, including Rashid Al Khalifa’s Sol Lewitt-like 3D model of interlocking architectural frameworks and Abdul Karim Al-Orrayed’s painting of the island’s urban grid. The backdrops of the tightly meshed blocks transition from yellow to blue, evoking sea as well as sand.

The Sea of Life: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Kingdom of Bahrain Through March 26 at the MEI Art Gallery, 1763 N St. NW. 202-785-1141.

Among the familiar sights in Terence Nicholson’s “You Can’t Unring the Bell” are photo-derived images of storefronts within easy walking distance of Honfleur Gallery, the show’s venue. Yet Nicholson’s outlook is not merely local. The artist and musician was a longtime Anacostia resident, but he is now based in Baltimore while continuing to work as an exhibition specialist at D.C. museums. He’s also a Chinese martial arts adept who describes himself as a follower of Taoist thought.

That tradition offers Nicholson a philosophical prism through which to view his mostly autobiographical art. This show’s centerpiece is a symbolic portrait of his mother, constructed from found objects. “Our Lady of Perpetual Servitude” is a hybrid of horror-movie creature and Catholic saint, all black except for a profusion of tan plastic nipples.

The upheaval of gentrification is a theme of many of the pieces, which include paintings and collages as well as 3D assemblages. Yet, as the show’s title indicates, Nicholson doesn’t indulge in regret or resentment. “One Blood” tidily affixes 65 small knobs cast in resin, each with a tiny object inside, to an old door inscribed with a mantra: “all that I am you are.” On the street newly renamed for former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, a divisive figure, Nicholson offers a vision of universal affinity.

Terence Nicholson: You Can’t Unring the Bell Through Feb. 2 at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Marion Barry Ave. SE. (202) 631-6291.

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