Jayme McLellan, Lightrope (2013)
Jayme McLellan, Lightrope (2013)

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

At the heart of “Jealousy of Clouds,” a solo show by artist and Civilian Art Projects Founding Director Jayme McLellan at Heiner Contemporary, is a Buddhist poem concerning a stream that envies the clouds above it. No need to know Thích Nhat Hanh’s work going in; McLellan’s written the poem on one wall in pencil. Her work is a series of photos and videos, taken mostly within the last year or so and installed to illustrate that poem and its lessons about desire.

Photography is a good metaphor for jealousy. Anyone who’s ever held an iPhone up to the sky understands the hubris in trying to capture something as ephemeral a cloud formation, and the diminishing returns of looking at a depiction of it compared to experiencing it. In that sense, the stakes are low for McLellan’s project. Viewers have a sense going in of what it means to find or seek serenity in nature. Everybody likes clouds.

With “Jealousy of Clouds,” she’s set out to convey clouds in the sky through her installation—photos are arranged here and there, mostly along one wall of the gallery, as if they were passing through. (You might miss “Little Cloud” in the corner if you don’t look up.) It’s the first in a series of decisions that reveals that there’s nothing particularly Zen about photography, which is the act of jealously capturing (and not carelessly enjoying).

There is an admirable triptych hidden in the show—“Perfect Fit,” “Follow Me,” and the video, “Blue and Gray”—three works that all embrace verdant foliage within their samples of sky. (A brief blurry glitch in the video is enough to give the whole suite, still photos included, a sense of motion.) In “The Nature of Impermanence,” McLellan captures the sun emerging from behind high clouds just a nanofraction of a second before lens flare obliterates the viewing plane. Certainly all the types of clouds are accounted for, from the sculptural cumulus clouds of “Sunset Grill” to the towering stack of cumulonimbus clouds in “The Big Takeover.”

If McLellan’s project achieved the same zen as Thích Nhat Hanh’s poem, there would be nothing to say about it. Fortunately for viewers, what makes the work interesting isn’t how it makes them feel. The key to the exhibit isn’t togetherness; it’s composition. McLellan tends to rely on framing (twinned beach umbrellas in “Miami Sky 1,” the arc of an amusement ride in “Satchmo”) and cropping (the fiery, perhaps derecho-y skies of “Leaving” and “Forming”). Though there’s a quick cut from an empty sky to a rainstorm in a video called “The Big One” to interrupt the otherwise pacific progression of clouds.

There are other ways that McLellan could have done this show. With the move from photography to video, she opens the door to drawing, sculpture, even performance—all the various ways to exhaust the notion of anxiety and serenity in nature. She might’ve gone with a strict procession of photographs, one after another, with a focus on shape and form and accident in nature. Instead she went for clouds: a cloud-like arrangement of pictures of clouds. “Jealousy of Clouds” is a light exhibit: airy, insubstantial, unconcerned.