The title of the current exhibit at the Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington puzzled me at first. “I’m Passing Through A Phase: I’m Changing to a Word” turns out to be from a line in a poem by Stanley Kunitz called “Passing Through — on my seventy-ninth birthday.” The irony here is that the three artists whose work makes up this show are all very young. Having graduated with their BFA’s from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012, they are just starting out, only beginning to understand who they are as artists and people. Rose interpreted Kunitz’s “changing to a word” as morphing into an identity, both artistic and existential.
The paintings of Heather Day are abstract and expressionist, both in form and in the way they are created. Unplanned, they are the product of, as she puts it, “an event transpired.” Yet, they are full of referential content, expressing far more than the purity of the gesture. Living and working in Baltimore, Day is fascinated by the facades of urban architecture, both in decay and renewal. Each work reflects a meditation on a narrative about experience in this environment, and storytelling is implicit here. Day writes, “Stitches and mark making lead to energetic movement reading like handwriting stretching from one side of the painting to the next. Paintings often act as pages requiring several in a series to tell the story.” Day uses various media to achieve these ends. She layers paint, both acrylic and, rather deliberately, house paint — not for the reasons that Pollock and DeKooning used it, but because it specifically references houses, deteriorating with peeling walls or being renovated with new coats of paint. She also applies creased fabrics and thread, as well as charcoal scribbling which more specifically suggests text elements or graffiti in some works. Day has a strong sense of color, occasionally using bright strips of neon yellow, glowing purples and deep Prussian blues that give a particular character to each canvas in a completely formal sense. Although most of the paintings are fairly good size, and work better on that scale, the artist also has a series, “Upkeep,” on very small canvases represented in the exhibit.
Joseph C. Parra is also interested in layers and revealing things unseen, but his work is figurative rather than abstract. To call it figurative is perhaps misleading, however. Parra is interested in the figure, but in a very pointed way. His work involves portraiture, but without names, and the individual portrayed is frequently altered to obscure his identity even further. Parra works in a variety of media including charcoal drawings. “Individual 3” is in this show, a full size nude drawn with exceptional sensibility to variations of tone and volume, and dotted with an etching tool to create a starry surface and goddess-like appearance. This drawing is a show stopper, and is among the strongest pieces in the exhibit.
Much of Parra’s work is photography-based, morphed and altered with different techniques including digital printing, screen printing, layering of materials and scraping. Among the most striking in this show are two digital prints with titles that indicate they are companion pieces: “Untitled (yet far)” and “Untitled (but close).” The former shows a boy’s face with a pale blue eye that penetrates through the lines and overlays applied to the image. The boy appears to be looking from behind, his expression surprised or anxious. There’s a distinctly blue tonality to the hair and in the shadows around this face. The girl in “Untitled (but close)” seems more confident, and indeed closer. Unfocused and softened, with a similarly striking brown eye, the girl’s face has pink tones that made me think of 18th century Rococo portraits of children. Together Parra’s two prints are like a contemporary parallel of the famous pair, Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” in The Huntington Library, both “fancy pictures” in which costumed children are not named, their identities suppressed in favor of their innocence and beauty.
Parra’s artist’s statement explains: “I expel the physical features of an appropriated individual and expose layers to reflect the varied constructs of what it is to be human. These layers can be abstracted, acting as reminders that we are merely a union of ideas.” And, one assumes, these ideas can transcend time and place.
The work of Theo Willis seems very different from his colleagues’ emphasis on layering and complexity. The works in this exhibit are from his series called “Yards” in which the artist plays with the materials and the process of preparing or building a painting, and how that system, habitually carried out by artists, can be altered to bring attention to it. His investigation therefore involves canvas and stretchers, re-shaping the frame, and exploring ways to deconstruct the canvas, including cutting, fringing, pulling out the threads and otherwise effectively treating it as a sculptural medium. These works don’t generally seem as much like paintings as they do three-dimensional objects, all in the minimalist colors of off-white canvas and light wood. One piece turns the canvas into a kind of sheepskin-like pillow (“Yards 18”) while another seems to illustrate a landscape of soft rows seen from above (“Yards 12”). Although not uniformly successful, Willis’ project shows an artist seeking to change our perceptions of the ordinary, thus revealing unseen properties lost in repetition. Although firmly rooted in recent art history (e.g. Jasper Johns), his is an idea that has lots of room for ongoing development and change.
To Jan. 27. A vernissage with the artists will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, featuring live music by Blackberry Blonde. Adah Rose Gallery, 3766 Howard Ave., Kensington, www.adahrosegallery.com.