‘Petri Dish’ exhibit riffs on scientific themes with diverse media

December 22, 2011

’Tis the season for group shows of small, affordable artworks — not stocking stuffers, exactly, but clearly designed for gifting. Target Gallery is presenting such a display, but one that’s agreeably short on jolly holiday themes. One of the pieces, for example, is a blue-tinted photographic print titled “Gonorrhea.” Lindsey Beal’s cyanotype may not be festive, but it suits the exhibition, which is titled “Petri Dish” and was selected by Jesse Cohen, a local art photographer who also works in molecular biology and drug development.

All the works fit into a standard-size petri dish (about four inches in diameter), although some strain against the edges. Many riff on scientific themes, if not necessarily biological ones. (Bits of computers and cellphones abound.) Others are simply paintings, prints or photos that happen to be circular and miniature. There are two handmade artists’ books (only one of them round). The media are equally diverse, including clay, fabric, glass, porcelain, water, steel, concrete, river grass and some toy soldiers.

Tricking the eye is part of the fun. Hana Hong makes painted steel and copper pieces that seem to be commonplace natural fragments; one looks like a clump of dried bark. For “Untitled Specimens,” Jasmyne Graybill uses clay and latex to simulate something that might grow on an agar medium. Amy Gross’s pair of “Cultured Biotopes” combine fabric, paper, beads and embroidery to evoke plantlike forms, although the pieces’ roughly spherical shapes suggest they’re microcosmic planets. (James Cameron might want to explore them before making “Avatar 2.”) Daniel Miller’s LED-illuminated “Under the Ice” also toys with scale; it could be an Antarctic landscape or a clump of microscopic crystals. Tiny as they are, the “Petri Dish” experiments are detailed enough to conjure worlds — and to draw the viewer into them.

Guy and Marco Rando

Tweaking nature on a somewhat larger scale, the father-and-son team of Guy and Marco Rando work mostly with wood. Theirs are the sort of skills that might yield furniture or household objects, but the Randos’ goals are not practical. Instead, they combine worked and natural pieces in a spirit of mysticism and whimsy. Guy Rando’s “Buddha Harmony” looks like a handcrafted cutting board gone mad, while Marco Rando’s wheeled pieces suggest the kind of toys a surrealist Santa might distribute.

If the duo’s work is not somber, it does respect the qualities of the material. The older Rando uses driftwood from the Potomac River, which he terms “sacred wood,” and juxtaposes it with smooth, polished pieces. “Crucifix” spotlights a hunk of driftwood on a framework of lumber ribs, and many of the pieces inlay small circles of contrasting color or grain. With the exception of “Trinity’s” gilt circle, Guy Rando’s work is all wood.

Marco Rando’s work is a little less “natural,” incorporating metal wheels and bottle caps. (These are also found objects, although not labeled “sacred.”) Many of them are named for animals, and the carved curves of “Spider Monkey” do suggest simian limbs. Anything on wheels has a sense of play, so these works don’t feel as pensive as the one on the walls at the Art League Gallery. But Marco Rando also shows reverence for his wooden ingredients, taking cues from their original form. The Randos shape but don’t transform; they accept that the wood has an integrity that trumps anything they might do with it.

Zhen Shan Ren

Some of the paintings in Alex Gallery’s “The Art of Zhen Shan Ren” could elicit giggles. Rendered realistically despite their supernatural aspects, these large canvases depict Falun Gong spiritual master Li Hongzhi floating in midair or — in a picture in which the round-faced Li resembles Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun-Fat — sporting angel wings. Other paintings feature the Buddha, one source of Li’s teachings, or bare-bottomed Asian cherubs, also levitating. Much of the work suggests superhero comics or Norman Rockwell illustrations but without their playfulness. The images are as earnest as any blandly heroic portrait of, say, Chairman Mao.

Yet there’s also something poignant about these pictures. They’re an attempt to appeal to the West on its own aesthetic terms, calling attention to the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in Li’s homeland, where many have been killed by government torturers and executioners. (Estimates of deaths range from 2,000 to more than 30 times that.) The goal is to both idealize and humanize the sect that’s drawn the wrath of Chinese authorities by promoting a seemingly unthreatening agenda — zhen (truth), shan (compassion), ren (tolerance) — along with breathing and stretching exercises akin to yoga.

Most of the artists are Chinese exiles who live in the United States or Canada. One of the most gifted is Yuan Li, whose refuge is Tokyo; there’s also a Canadian by birth, Kathleen Gillis. All work in roughly the same mode, derived from European Old Masters and American illustrators of a more recent era. The painters call their style “new Renaissance,” but it’s closer to the 18th-century neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David. Yuan Li’s expertly made “A Tragedy in China” is in the tradition of David’s “The Death of Marat,” a depiction of a French Revolution casualty that’s modeled on earlier paintings of Christian martyrs.

Oils on canvas allow the depiction of both spiritual states and horrible crimes, such as the harvesting of imprisoned sect members’ internal organs for transplant. (The Chinese government denies that this happens, but independent reports support Falun Gong accounts.) Painting may not be the most effective way for the group to reach potential allies; these days, photos and videos are generally considered more urgent and genuine. But the best of these paintings, however old-fashioned and literal-minded, are potent. And there is no ideal way to document horror.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Petri Dish

on view through Dec. 31 at Target Gallery, Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, 703-838-4565 ext. 4. www.torpedofactory.org/galleries/

Guy and Marco Rando: Transitions

on view through Jan. 2 at the Art League Gallery, Torpedo Factory,
105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-683-1780. www.theartleague.org .

The Art of Zhen Shan Ren

on view through Dec. 31 at Alex Gallery, 2106 R St. NW. 202-667-2599. www.alexgalleries.com.

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