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People-watcher, eavesdropper, pack rat, and Peeping Tom, Nilay Lawson simplifies a gritty city into easily digestible bits. Her lens takes in all sorts of things that populate streets and sidewalks, and for “If You Didn’t Know What This Was, Would You Know What This Is?” she makes Transformer’s intimate space a diorama of city life as it intersects with her personal life. Portraits of her parents are placed opposite each other, above images of street life and dirty sidewalks, while a stylized, hand-painted faux wooden floor is underfoot. One theme connecting many of the show’s 32 works is typography. Lawson studied graphic design at the Corcoran, and she remains fixated on letters—a whole alphabet is constructed out of concrete, and another is photographed as Lawson came upon naturally-occurring letters made of street detritus. Her various collections—chicken bones, sticks that look like guns, stuffed elephant toys, seeds—make up several works. Eavesdropping, too, is important to Lawson. After listening in on conversations, she returned to the spots they took place to photograph the locations where she listened in. Many of her paintings depict conversations taking place between strangers, and even the walls of the gallery bear a peculiar snippet she overheard: “Now I don’t know why it always rains when the elephants come to town.”

THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW FROM 1 P.M. TO 7 P.M. WEDNESDAY–SATURDAY TO SATURDAY, DEC. 6, AT TRANsFORMER, 1404 P ST. NW. FREE. (202) 483-1102.