Galleries: One view of how people of color are portrayed in pre-modern art
A painting of an old sailing vessel, the canvas slipping from the frame and partly edged in tar. A musty, full-size cabin, its rickety walls and floor half-rotted and its rooms scattered with evocative artifacts.
The exhibition that encompasses such things — Titus Kaphar’s “The Vesper Project,” at the American University Museum — must have an interesting backstory.
So it does. The story goes like this: After Benjamin Vesper defaced one of Kaphar’s paintings in a gallery, the men began to communicate. Vesper had been institutionalized, so they never met face to face. But the patient sent letters about his family’s history, which inspired the artist to tell the whole tragic tale: Vesper is descended from a merchant who prospered in 19th-century New England, but only until his neighbors learned he was “passing” as white. Then the Vesper clan imploded.
One other notable thing about this tale: Kaphar made it up. Yet pieces of it, like parts of the fictional Vesper’s ramshackle hideaway, are real.
The New Haven-based Kaphar, who is African American, addresses the way people of color are portrayed in pre-modern art. He paints in a neoclassical style, but with figures removed or obscured to represent gaps in personal and collective memory. His installation does much the same thing in a more immersive way. With its absent inhabitants and missing floorboards, the Vesper house is a powerful, and suitably eerie, metaphor for loss. It symbolizes the decay of human memory, but also how aspects of American history have been deliberately forgotten.
The grimy house, largely hidden behind a clean white wall, is one of several installations at the museum whose images burst into 3-D form and engage the space. In “Free Fall Flow,” Micheline Klagsbrun uses formed paper, poured colored inks and bits of found wood to express a favored theme: metamorphosis. Following the shape of the room, the artist has created a long, curved piece, but there are also ones that hug the wall or hang from the ceiling. The translucent paper, liquid pigments and blue-heavy palette suggest water and flight, while wood and bark represent the heavier and more grounded. Klagsbrun illustrates how life changes both in and by her work, which itself is transforming from traditional painting into something more abstract and sculptural.
Susanne Kessler’s “Jerusalem” and Beverly Ress’s “The World Is a Narrow Bridge” are adjacent to Klagsbrun’s show. Ress does small, precise nature drawings on large pieces of paper. She then carves intricate patterns into the sheets and retains the cut-out parts as a compositional element. The drawings and lacy paper are both delicate, yet the way the cutouts spiral off the pictures is quietly emphatic.
Making dramatic use of an open three-story stairwell, Kessler’s exuberant installation includes a cloud of tangled wires, cables and twisted plastic bags. The artist was inspired by a topographical map, but the swirling assemblage hangs in midair, more heaven than earth.
Also dangling are three ladders, too precarious to be climbed by anyone carrying the weight of everyday life. The piece’s layers represent Jerusalem’s strata of history, culture and belief, but its airborne quality points to something beyond.
Upstairs is work by Joe White, who became known in the 1970s as a neorealist, but who began with abstraction. He has found his way back to a version of that with “Post-It” (credited to Joseph rather than Joe).
The selection doesn’t quite add up to a retrospective, but it does include two early abstracts and six 1980s representational pictures.
The newer work is 40 geometric doodles on multicolored, 3-inch paper squares, and two large paintings derived from them. The latter differ not just in scale but also in that they employ light-colored strokes on darker backgrounds to assert that they’re not merely sketches. Although these line-oriented compositions are unlike the more elaborate earlier abstractions, both are hard-edged.
So are the realist pictures, which include four cityscapes — one of New York and three of the District. These paintings combine realistic detail with expanses of bold, flat color, demonstrating that White always thinks about form, whether he’s rendering simple lines or a complete landscape.
Titus Kaphar: The Vesper Project; Micheline Klagsbrun: Free Fall Flow; The World Is a Narrow Bridge: Drawings by Beverly Ress; Suzanne Kessler: Jerusalem; and Joseph White: Post-It On view through Dec. 13 at the American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/museum.
Although he works with glass, Graham Caldwell doesn’t necessarily make the material. The pieces in “Invisibility Cloaks,” at G Fine Arts, start as standard windowpanes, which the Brooklyn artist manipulates by melting and sometimes breaking. Most become slumped mirrors, reflective in flatter areas but foggy in the more rumpled ones.
Retaining the shapes of the frameworks that supported them as they softened in a kiln, the sculptures often have a topographic quality or sensuous, human-like curves.
The pieces are usually edged in black epoxy, which Caldwell also uses to affix small shards to the edges of a few of them. White epoxy binds the shiny spikes of “Polymorphous Light Eruption,” the most complex composition and the only one of colored glass. It hangs across from “Shattered Mirror Box,” whose undulating contours have been smashed by multiple blows. The two — disparate yet complementary — reflect each other’s glimmering facets.
Graham Caldwell: Invisibility Cloaks On view through Dec. 12 at G Fine Art, 4718 14th St. NW. 202-462-1601. www.gfineartdc.com.
Visitors to “New Painted Sculpture” needn’t look far for Rob Hitzig’s inspiration. The contrasting stripes of the Vermont artist’s sculpture-paintings parallel the ones on the canoe that sits on the floor at the center of Cross MacKenzie Gallery. Made by Hitzig from six kinds of wood, the sleek vessel features strips in shades of tan and brown.
Once an EPA employee and part-time furniture maker in D.C., Hitzig still builds the occasional canoe. But his emphasis now is on form rather than function. His pieces highlight the wood’s hue and grain, while supplementing those qualities with colorful bands of oil pastel, fixed by layers of shellac. The sculptures fan out from the wall, and are sometimes arranged in sets of three. What draws the eye, though, is the juxtaposition of the bright, clean lines that Hitzig adds and the unpredictable patterns he can select but can’t control. Hitzig is a sculptor, but he’s less concerned with shape than with complex surfaces.
Rob Hitzig: New Painted Sculpture On view through Dec. 15 at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-337-7970. www.crossmackenzie.com.