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A Jody Mussoff drawing is unmistakable, even if you haven’t spent the past two decades following her career in figurative art. A typical Mussoff portrait is slightly larger than this newspaper. With minimal detail in its subject matter but a depth of intense, subtly colored crosshatches and hairlike tendrils in its execution, it portrays a young, slender woman with a taut posture, an enigmatic expression, and a penetrating gaze that bypasses the viewer to reach…where?

Mussoff’s figures are fiction; she doesn’t use specific models. “I get my art from reading and looking,” she says, “especially on the Metro.” (Green Line passengers may want to peruse Mussoff’s drawings on paper and ceramics, currently on display at Gallery K, for familiar hats and noses.)

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Mussoff—who attended the Corcoran School of Art in the mid-’70s and whose work graces various collections, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, and Germany’s Kunsthalle Nürnberg—is reluctant to name specific artists who’ve influenced her work, though she admits to a youthful fascination with Degas, which is echoed in the demeanor of some of her figures. “People say my work looks like dancers,” she says. “I never go to dance performances, but that’s intriguing.”

Her work also evokes theater—which, Mussoff allows, makes more sense. “I like to put people in costume,” she explains. “Fairy-tale costumes—black-humored fairy tales.” Hence Dog Cape at the Gallery K exhibit, in which a young girl wraps herself in a dog’s pelt—its paws in her hands, its head on her head, its legs dangling behind her.

Another of Mussoff’s costumed figures stirred some controversy when it was exhibited at Baltimore’s Maryland Art Place in February 2000: One of her fellow exhibitors in the show “Realist/Stylist” pulled out because of the inclusion of Jewess, which shows a young girl, in profile, wearing a mask comprising a yarmulke and Hasidic beard. In the exhibit catalog, curator Joe Shannon, himself a Washington, D.C.-based figurative artist, described Jewess as “a gentle critique of those who would return us to medieval behavior, especially shackling women.” For her part, Mussoff, who is Jewish, shrugs off the whole thing as a tempest in a teapot and notes benignly, “I like to put things on people’s heads.”

Besides Dog Cape, there are other jarring images in Mussoff’s current show. In Teacher—a highly atypical Mussoff work in its use of multiple personages—a large field contains more than a half-dozen figures (of various ages and races, and of both genders) who face a woman whose back is turned to the viewer. Only the viewer can see the tree branch held behind the back of the “teacher.”

“I think [the stick] just came from wanting a nature aspect,” says Mussoff. And although she acknowledges that “some people think it’s about punishment,” she is taken aback when I point out that the preadolescent girl at the right of the grouping—whose eyes, for once, almost meet the viewer’s—is holding her arm outstretched, palm up and fingers curled, with what looks to be a stripe across her wrist.

“I remember a long time ago that some critic was really down on my work because of the mystery,” says Mussoff. “Since I don’t have scenarios, I don’t come to a resolution. Am I kind of copping out?” —Pamela Murray Winters

Jody Mussoff’s drawings and ceramics are on view with Manuela Holban’s paintings at Gallery K through June 30.