to Oct. 28

Erik Sandberg likes stodgy academic painting and naked ladies—preferably together. But the reasons for his fascination with either are elusive. “Contrary,” his current show at Conner Contemporary Art, offers plenty of both girls and grisaille: On both sides of three freestanding plinths, each measuring roughly six-and-a-half-feet tall, Sandberg has painted a nude or mostly disrobed figure occupying a shallow neutral space. The back-to-back figures indicate paired virtues and vices—Courage/Cowardice, Truth/Deceit, Charity/Avarice. By making his pieces life-sized and taking them off the walls so that they occupy the viewer’s space in the middle of the gallery, Sandberg addresses a 500-year-old Renaissance debate: Which is better, painting or sculpture? The question is moot by this late, cross-disciplinary date. Sandberg’s works instead pose another question: Why are his virtues as unappealing as his vices? Cowardice is a bloated wreck with tiny ineffectual flippers for hands. But his image of Courage (pictured), despite being, yes, a young female nude, is painted with similar fleshy revulsion. With a palette of chalky orange-pinks, raw umber, and dirty pale blue, Sandberg accentuates every wrinkle and flabby protrusion—like Lucien Freud without the impasto. Parched, cracked lips, mannish shoulders and hips, sagging breasts and a shaved pudendum are bleached by harsh artificial light. It’s a facile sort of painting that delights in signs of decay; it’s sexual without being erotic. Sandberg resists the delectation of color, resists creating pictorial spaces with any interest, and resists idealizing the human body. What he does entertain are a foreboding, anti-human grimness and an illustrational, painterly touch—more perverted Norman Rockwell than Peter Paul Rubens. “Contrary” is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through Saturday, Oct. 28, at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 588-8750. (Jeffry Cudlin)