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At Signal 66 to March 4

With arguably the shabby-chic-est digs of any D.C. arts space, the Signal 66 gallery and studio complex in Blagden Alley is worth stepping over a few used condoms and smashed malt liquor bottles to find. It’s a former livery stable with two floors of exhibition space, including the spectacular 2,700-square-foot main gallery whose ceilings soar to more than 15 feet and cry out for aggressive, large-scale work. But for the latest show, “Shimmer,” Signal 66’s curators invited four young artists, local brothers Colin and Dan Treado and out-of-towners Linn Meyers and Paul Stremple, who work in subdued colors and at a human scale; there are only a few outsized works, none much larger than

5 feet square. Their subjects are quiet, too: All four artists either create or catalog elusive space, be it at the bottom of a pond or in an itty-bitty parlor of bacteria. The works are of such a modest size that they risk drowning in the gallery’s muscular expanse, but, somehow, they mellow out the space, as if the white painted-brick walls had popped a Valium.

The Brothers Treado, sons of a small-particle physicist, talked about quarks between bites of mac and cheese at the family dinner table. Now they both take an interest in charting regions unseen to the naked eye. Dan Treado seeks out the space between objects on land or under the sea; younger brother Colin peers into a microscope.

Dan Treado, an irreverent disciple of the Brice Marden school of gestural line, creates his images of snaky lines by reduction: The artist uses solvents to cut into his thinly painted surfaces to create ghostly layers of looping shapes evocative of the protozoa that make their homes at the bottom of the ocean or in storm drains. By revealing the underlayers, the artist takes us back to our primeval roots. The sepia-toned Coke and a Smoke hosts dark, hazy lines floating in and out of focus, some near the surface and others below. In our daily movements about town and country, we are constantly witnesses to minor spatial phenomena in the background of life—say, the intersection of a tree’s lower and higher branches, or the imposition of cloud layers—that we hardly pay attention to, except, perhaps, to orient us on our headlong path. Treado, however, seizes on stillness and forever records those spaces between natural objects—spaces sometimes lasting so little time that they barely exist.

He’s working a provocative, dignified concept in Smoke, but when Dan Treado moves from the evanescent life of pond scum to terra firma, he’s a fish out of water. In The Hinge of Her Thighs, the firma becomes the flesh between a woman’s thighs. The 16 10-by-12-inch panels arranged here in a grid sacrifice subtlety in the name of prurience: Treado chooses a curved form that looks like an immature pear to represent Her fleshy lips, and he renders it in lines of dark-blue paint that contrast starkly with the pale yellow and light-blue ground. With the emphasis on this shape—an inelegant one at that—Treado loses the ethereal qualities of atmosphere. Hesitance, not bravado, is what makes Treado’s other work captivating.

Colin Treado also traces sinuous lines with paint. But his lines look slippery and shiny, like microorganisms viewed under an electron microscope. In many of his pieces on view here, Treado paints in small square panels that he arranges in a grid on Mylar sheets. When each box is painted a different color, as in Collection 2, and the panels are laid over a single image resembling a capillary network, it looks like a scientist’s germ collection or a yearbook of bacteria. But sometimes the artist leaves the space between the panels unpainted, so the naked white Mylar pops forward, like a window between us and the image below. In Molt, the panels are all painted the same ocher and blue-green, hinting at a unified image beneath the surface. Because the image is obstructed, our imagination fills in what’s missing: The scene becomes a writhing pit of tentacled beasties, like the armies of dust mites colonizing my mattress that kept my 9-year-old brain wide awake at night, sensing their stealthy, squirming presence. Test Curl looks nearly the same as Molt, except it’s just one huge panel that reveals the whole image. Seeing everything deflates my fantasy: It’s a heap of curling wires. The artist charts microbial terrain to awaken our imaginations to worlds just under our noses. But when he tells all, he leaves no grist for the imagination.

When Pittsburgh-based painter Linn Meyers moved from literal landscapes to abstract ones, she mourned the loss of the horizon line—and the implied depth of its pictorial plane. So she decided to make depth herself. Meyers stretches a thin, translucent scrim over a wooden frame that’s affixed several inches over another surface, creating two picture planes. She delicately paints or drops resin on both surfaces, so when you move back and forth before each piece, the planes twinkle like a faraway star. In the series of five 18-by-18-inch pieces that open this show, Meyers plays the flirt: She creates an elusive, pulsing space that’s intriguing if only because it’s unreachable. However, when Meyers lays a too-thick layer of paint on the scrim, as she does in a couple of diptychs on view upstairs, she obscures the surface below and annuls the point of layering.

Meyers does such a fine job creating depth in the few abstracted landscapes on view here, I wonder why she went to the trouble of manufacturing it in her scrim pieces. In an untitled canvas that’s just over 5 feet square, Meyers paints delicate horizontal and vertical strokes in blue, red, green, and brown, as if to depict hundreds of inchlong hairs overlapping in a woven surface. The artist effectively plays with colors that recede or advance, so the surface appears to bubble slowly, like a thick soup. The loosely gridded surface and its topographical qualities descend directly from Agnes Martin’s pencil grids of the ’60s. And, although they may not be wholly original, the canvases are executed flawlessly.

All those physics classes New York-based artist Paul Stremple took while getting his master’s degree in architecture clearly taught him a lot about angles and refracted light; he’s been making light sculptures for several years. This obsession informs his seven Telescopes—four-legged glass and steel sculptures standing erect like a quiet army whose ranks are all trained in the same direction. Atop the steel legs, Stremple has mounted 25-pound solid glass bars—over 2 feet long, with angled ends, they look like trapezoids—secured with metal screws.

One end of each scope is dead, just a blur of gray glass like a lens out of focus. But if you peep into the other end, it looks as if a flash bulb had just gone off. Inside, a light image floats like a hologram, just out of reach. Stremple has created a prism: Light from above streams through a tiny image etched into the other end of the frosted glass; as it refracts and passes through the shaft, it creates an image startlingly bright, with the blue and red ends of the spectrum hovering around the edges.

Peeking into that intense brightness feels like staring into the sun. But once your retinas warm up and relax, the images invite closer inspection—you see a few sprouting leaves or fingerprints connected by lines as if they were aliens communicating wirelessly. But not so fast, buddy: When you step in too close, the image flexes, blurs, and disappears. Stremple insists that you step back to enjoy that delicious image again. Like all the artists in this show, he’s a first-rate tease, showing you the goods but not letting you touch. CP