"Lighthouse" by Monroe Isenberg

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The three exhibits currently on display at IA&A at Hillyer prioritize concept over artistry. Fortunately, they make their cases persuasively.

Kei Ito, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, offers more than 80 contact prints that look like X-rays. The images superimpose two items—possessions that Ito would choose to carry if he ever had to evacuate in a hurry, and images of World War II internment orders for Japanese-Americans.

Ito’s technique renders his objects primitively, and the text backdrops become somewhat repetitive; his pairing of modern items like computer battery packs and decades-old documents can be jarring. (The conceit works best when it captures the more haphazard patterns of timeless items such as spices and incense sticks.)

Despite this, Ito’s project adroitly ties together some of our moment’s most urgent themes. As nuclear worries about North Korea escalate, the works’ X-ray appearance suggests radiation akin to that survived by the artist’s grandfather in the Hiroshima bombing. Meanwhile, at a time when immigration and deportation are at the top of the national agenda, Ito reminds viewers about the oft-forgotten Japanese internment—and provokes difficult thoughts by viewers about what they would take with them if they ever had to leave their homes suddenly.

Altogether, “Only What We Can Carry” delivers a grim vision for an anxious era. If you look closely, though, it’s possible to pluck a few bits of optimism from the project. Notably, Ito has chosen to include among his go-bag possessions a pen, notebooks, paintbrushes, and a palette and knife. Art, in other words, can aid survival, and maybe even salvation.

The other two exhibits are a bit less sharp-edged, but brainy nonetheless.

Monroe Isenberg, who teaches at the University of Maryland, offers “Lighthouse,” a darkened, room-sized environment dominated by a central, upturned pyramid and surrounded on all four sides by a projected horizon that looks like an intermittent aurora borealis. The work is a puzzle, albeit a calming one; at first, I thought I made the projected light shimmer when I exhaled, but I was mistaken.

The final exhibit, by recent University of Maryland graduate Grant McFarland, is a rough-hewn love letter to the rural areas along the New York-Vermont border. McFarland creates sculptural works from reclaimed materials from the region—a meta-commentary on the area’s decline into disuse and abandonment.

One work is made from stones, wire and metal, while another uses a metal balance beam, stacked firewood and an embedded axe. McFarland’s finest piece, however, is the tryptich of wood frames he’s enhanced with a projected rustic forest scene and a portion of wire mesh that has curled into an intriguing, diaphanous form—a reinvention of a curtained window, adjoining two that are boarded up.

Through Jan. 28 at IA&A at Hillyer, 9 Hillyer Court, NW. (202) 338-0325. Tues.-Fri. 12 p.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Mon. 12 p.m.-5 p.m.