Review | In the galleries: Mesmerizing acrobatics, cartons morph into collages


Among photo collagist Walter Plotnick’s most useful tools is the Chinese carryout food container. In “Surprise Inside,” one of two series on exhibit at Photoworks, the Philadelphia-area artist superimposes vintage photographs on images of unfolded boxes. Some of the cartons provide just shapes, textures and shadows, but others are decorated with patterns meant to evoke traditional Chinese culture. One of these delicately hued boxes provides the framework for a collage, made especially for this show, that features a 1959 picture of a D.C. Transit trolley parked at the entrance to Glen Echo Park.

Plotnick uses public-domain black-and-white photos to make his collages, which his statement calls metaphors for anticipation: “The implied act of opening the boxes releases the occupants, allowing them to take flight.” He illustrates this idea by adding to the Glen Echo picture an image of a child in a miniature airplane, seemingly flying above the park’s gates.

While the “Surprise Inside” photos were made with silver halide printing, a venerable photographic process, the other series employs a mix of darkroom and computer techniques. Plotnick begins his “Circus” collages by scanning old photos of acrobats and printing them on clear plastic. Then he combines the plastic sheets with various objects and makes contact prints by exposing the overlapping materials to photosensitive paper with miniature flashlights.

The results convey a sense of light and motion that’s lacking in the “Surprise Inside” pictures, which are less dynamic but just as intriguingly layered. What the two series share are a powerful illusion of depth and the sensation of the past reanimated. Plotnick’s photo collages are constructed, but they feel excavated.

Walter Plotnick: Surprise Inside/Circus Through Feb. 4 at Photoworks, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. glenechophotoworks.org. 301-634-2274.

About a third of the photographs in “Winter” are in color, but that’s not always immediately obvious. The Multiple Exposures Gallery group show depicts a whited-out world, where most details are buried under snow: Four clustered plastic flamingos offer just a hint of pink in Tom Sliter’s lawn scene, and a remote yellow shed provides the only color in Maureen Minehan’s landscape.

The gallery is known for devising story-less narratives, arranging photos purely by visual affinities. “Winter” takes a similar approach, shifting from mountain to mountain and tree to tree. One striking pair juxtaposes views of jagged dark gashes through whiteness: a fence in Alan Sislen’s picture and a stream in Fred Zafran’s.

A winter storm can transform an everyday object, such as the snow-blasted door Eric Johnson found just a few blocks from the gallery. It can also nearly obliterate a vista, like the one Soomin Ham renders in white and light gray with just a few black shapes, apparently birds, in the middle distance. In both pictures a coating of white occasions new ways of seeing.

Winter Through Jan. 28 at Multiple Exposures Gallery, Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. multipleexposuresgallery.com. 703-683-2205.

One emphasizes rock and the other vegetation, but there’s more than just a single substance in the work of Eleanor Mahin Thorp and Lexi Arrietta. Both women fuse nature with elements of religion, psychology and traditional arts.

Thorp’s semiabstract nature studies are simpler, at least in terms of materials. The Richmond artist’s “Metopic Ridge,” on display at Tephra ICA at Signature, features gray-heavy oil paintings on panels and a few gentler-hued watercolors. Each kind of picture has a geological quality, with plants and what appear to be fossils nestled in rocky strata. The compositions are tightly framed, so they resemble core samples as much as landscapes.

The immediate inspiration is Virginia’s Blue Ridge, but Thorp also takes cues from Persian miniature paintings and titles one picture after Mount Meru, the mythic peak sacred to three India-rooted religions. As Thorp burrows into local mountains, her mind travels widely.

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A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Arrietta also draws from local geography. Desiccated vines, branches, mushrooms and snakeskins are incorporated into the mixed-media sculptures of “The Doubting Woods,” the D.C. artist’s Rhizome show. But these are intermingled with such man-made items as cloth, ceramics and small feet cast in plaster. The last protrude from bits of carpet to suggest that full human bodies somehow lurk within these fragile assemblages.

The fabric pieces are often worn or decayed, and wisps of hair or hairlike plant fibers suggest the remains of a missing person. A pitcher full of charred wood pieces is attached to a weathered wooden panel in “Reliquary/Relinquish,” a title that could be applied to any of these constructions. Arrietta’s work is tactile and palpable, and yet conjures absence. It uses found objects to evoke people and things that have been lost.

Eleanor Mahin Thorp: Metopic Ridge Through Feb. 4 at Tephra ICA at Signature, 11850 Freedom Dr., Reston. tephraica.org. 703-471-9242.

Lexi Arrietta: The Doubting Woods Through Feb. 4 at Rhizome, 6950 Maple St. NW. rhizomedc.org.

A Watergate Gallery group show, “Unfolding Dreams,” offers a more enchanted idea of the natural world than Thorp or Arrietta’s. With 32 artists represented, the reveries are diverse, but four forest paintings dovetail neatly. Jasmin Smith’s Rousseau-like scene centers on bright fronds set off by a dark backdrop. Seemingly even more humid is Sabrina Pedreira’s array of hot-pink flowers, while Cheryl Bearss’ picture of bare trees swathed in moss is mostly, and moistly, green. Fran Beard employs a similar color scheme but a less realistic style in “Garden Dreamscape,” which fractures the imagery in a way that suggests stained glass.

Doug Dupin constructs a three-dimensional ode to the woods, placing green eggs inside a hollowed section of tree trunk. This piece’s near-opposite is Craig Kraft’s homage to Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” which edges in white neon the hard-edge geometric outline of the original.

Dreaming turns a bit more ominous in Aurie Hall’s collage, whose three panels observe a woman’s face as it’s overgrown by yellow flowers. The darkest piece, both literally and symbolically, is a Helen Zughaib painting in which four people in colorful robes, probably a family, face away from the observer and toward solid blackness. The picture’s title, “Tomorrow We Will Dream,” can be read as either hopeful or despairing, but that dark void is not auspicious.

Unfolding Dreams Through Feb. 10 at Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW. watergategalleryframedesign.com. 202-338-4488.



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