At Troyer Gallery to Aug. 21

The sign outside Troyer Gallery on Connecticut Avenue NW looks a lot cleaner since Sally Troyer whited out the names of her former partners in Troyer Fitzpatrick Lassman Gallery last January. Since then, shows carrying only Troyer’s name have thus far followed the TFL model, hosting established artists delivering mostly solid work. Except, that is, for one misstep in the spring, when Troyer showed a suite of wrenching, black-and-white war photos in conjunction with Tartt Gallery. The collaboration seemed better suited to a military museum.

Troyer’s latest show, however, is more promising. She exposes six young artists, many of them based in New York, whose best works in sculpture, video, and photography vibrate with millennial anomie and biotechnological terror. But instead of devoting the entire show to these young urban artists’ chilly missives, Troyer pulls her punch. Damp-eyed naturalistic work—wood sculptures and photographs of children—creep into this three-room gallery’s rear precincts, bogging down a display that opens with a wicked, energetic wink.

At the show’s entrance, Troyer sends us reeling with sculpture and photographs vibrating in red, yellow, and blue. At first glance, the work seems coated in a glossy sheen that’s as transfixing as the tailfin of a ’50s Chevy and looks about as kitschy. But just below the polish lurk dark ruminations on our existence. Twenty-nine-year-old Luisa Kazanas specializes in surreal sculptures about organisms gone haywire. In Flames, she sculpts more than 30 licks of flame in wax and encases them in high-gloss red paint. They’re about 6 inches at their highest—fleshy, bloated, like diseased root vegetables sprouting upside down. On their own, the flames seem weird for weird’s sake. But, along with the artist’s other works on view here—including three cast-urethane sculptures of deformed babies—the flames contribute to the impression of genetic experiments gone awry, the notion that even one of nature’s four elements can be subject to derangement.

First up in Kazanas’ mutation parade is Prototype 1, a sculpture shellacked in the same cherry red as Flames, which grafts two pudgy, splayed legs onto a spotted, ovoid mound that looks like a pox-stricken hand grenade. Kicking giddily, this child-bomb flails in oblivion to its own gruesome implications. Nearby, Double Happiness, a pure white baby sprouting legs and genitalia at both ends of its torso (Right side up, it’s a boy! Upside down, it’s a girl!), hangs tacked to the wall like a prized specimen in a 19th-century naturalist’s insect collection. Kazanas’ mutants, like nasty car crashes and sci-fi films, terrify and fascinate. They satisfy our inner rubbernecker’s deformity curiosity and synopsize that part of our world where bodies operate without morality.

Artists Rhona Bitner and Michael Joseph share the room with Kazanas’ Siamese cybertwins. Bitner offers a trio of dramatic circus photographs in which limber acrobats and clowns bathed in blue, pink, or yellow light emerge from the black edges of the frame. These performers’ solitary endeavors would be solemn portraits of alienation, but their action is too energetic to inspire empathy. But Bitner’s work jibes well with the color and themes of Joseph’s photographs and video. His photograph of a video still, called Stand In, features someone reclining on a couch in a cozy living room. But the outline of the figure has been filled in as a blob of pure blue, signaling a space for an editor to insert another image. Joseph’s overtly cynical view—that individual experience is about as unique as the Ikea sofa you’re sitting on—is as over-the-top as Kazanas’ deformities. But that jarring blue space would spook me to attention anyway.

Turns out that Joseph’s nihilistic view of humankind doesn’t extend to machines. In Above and Beyond, Joseph’s chronicle of a video camera’s suicide—seen from the camera’s own point of view—takes us on a rumbling, sometimes hesitant journey along the Brooklyn Bridge toward a leap into the river. Our perspective, identical to the camera’s, is from inside the head of this despondent character who lumbers and bounces, peeks nervously over the edge, and, finally, jumps. Screened here on video monitors so small that details are inevitably missing, the video nonetheless manages to eke out its camera’s personality. The machine has a soul.

While Joseph investigates technology’s vulnerability, recent Corcoran School of Art graduate Haegeen Kim reveres its dignity. The artist has created a motor-driven machine that draws perfect circles—one almost 6 feet in diameter, the other just over a foot. A hunk of graphite attached to a steel rod etches the larger circle on a gallery wall; a fine-point marker traces its line on a square of Plexiglas, hovering like a hummingbird suckling at a flower. When a machine like this has arms so graceful, who needs a human hand? The hum of the motor sounds as soothing as a gurgling Zen fountain—reassuring us that machines aren’t all bad. It’s a welcome tonic to counter Kazanas’ paranoid display.

Opposite Kim’s work in this second gallery adjoining the main room, the delicious energy of the show’s introductory works runs headlong into the sterility of Andrew Moe’s wood sculptures. In a pair of works hung here, the artist has pierced tree branches with wire and reeds to make bowed sculptures that look like oversized stringed instruments. In the rear gallery, another work—a roughly 3-by-5-foot slice of wood siding salvaged from a barn is carved with an oval nook hiding a small, highly stylized wooden sculpture of a mother and her child behind a wooden door. In these works, Moe conjures up the lives of the pioneers of the West at least as well as Willa Cather’s My Antonua. Amid the other artists’ cool communiques from the 21st century, Moe’s work looks particularly antiquarian.

So do photographer Kim Hunter’s black-and-white photographs of children scattered in the second and rear galleries. Hunter’s examination of childhood anomie delivered in whitewashed wood frames makes an appropriately rural pendant to Moe’s work, but her children are almost jarring in their tenderness after Kazanas’ biotech fantasies. Too bad Troyer begins by sending engrossing missives from a machine-age future only to revert to prefabricated ideals past. CP