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The two exhibits currently on view at the Mansion at Strathmore are both strikingly colorful, but that’s about where the similarities end. The larger and more prominent show is the 25th Annual Colored Pencil Society of America International Exhibition, which features 118 drawings that were curated from 500 submissions to the society’s annual contest. Although some of these works deal in the surreal, most are intensely realistic. From afar, they resemble detailed oil paintings, computer-generated images, or even photographs.
Blush, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with art that looks like what you might call “the real thing.” This exhibit is a collaboration between D.C. artists Emily Hoxworth and Rose Jaffe that explores representations of bodies, both inside and out. And even though it’s limited to one room, while the larger Colored Pencil show is scattered throughout the museum, it’s by far the stronger of the two exhibits.
Jaffe’s work in Blush feels like a bit of a nostalgia trip (in a good way). The brightly-colored, acrylic-on-birch-wood ladies that hang on the wall—some naked, some wearing underwear or clothes—might remind viewers of the kind of drawings they used to see in their teenage zines. More than one of the women has the kind of wide, angular hair that recalls Jane Lane from the animated TV show Daria or some of the illustrations in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips. And like the women in Bechdel’s influential queer comics, the ladies in Jaffe’s exhibit have visible body hair and realistic proportions. Jaffe’s work hits you over the head with the reality that, paradoxically, these cartoon bodies look more like those you see every day than most of the ones on magazine covers and movie posters.
Jaffe’s largest piece is an enormous tangle of women painted onto a large linen sheet with acrylic and spray paint. Cleverly titled “Knot Your Woman/Panorama,” it evokes her work as a muralist in D.C. The women in the painting actually appear to be variations of the same woman in different emotional states—happy, angry, content, frustrated. They are a knot of the unnamed woman’s unknowable emotions, and a refusal to cede complete knowledge of her inner self to another.
If Jaffe’s work makes viewers feel like they’re walking through a zine, Hoxworth’s makes them think they’ve entered another dimension. Her art represents bodies in a completely different way from Jaffe’s. Eyes and organs are pulled out of their sockets. Intestinal tracts float around in dark green fluid resembling bile. From afar, a large piece titled “Strange Specimen” looks like a collection of fairies hanging from a shelf. Up close, they look like something that someone puked up.
In fact, most of Hoxworth’s pieces make viewers wonder what the hell they’re even looking at; her paintings of disembodied organs and limbs and her primal-looking wool sculptures don’t lend themselves easily to interpretation. She seems to be fascinated with the parts and functions of our bodies that disgust us. This isn’t meant to be pretty or comforting. Even her wool sculpture “Nesting Instincts,” which has the muted psychedelic colors of an episode of Fraggle Rock, has a shape and construction that renders the colorful fabric grotesque. One of the strongest pieces is “The Dilemma,” an oil painting of a semi-visible woman holding an apple. It’d be a little on-the-nose if it were just an apple—but, to the woman’s horror, it has a mouth, suggesting that the apple might try to take a bite of her first.
Compared to Blush, the drawings in the Colored Pencil exhibit are easier to take in. Birds, soda cans, people, cars—the subjects are wide-ranging and mostly ordinary. Viewing the drawings is a little bit like looking at optical illusions. When you stand several feet away from some of them, they really do look like photographs. Only when you move closer do you start to see some of the signs that they were drawn with pencils. Sometimes, you need to hold your face right up to the frame before your brain can really make this connection.
It’s a fun game, but it doesn’t always make for the most interesting art. Drawings of fruit that look like real fruit, or trees that look like real trees, don’t always convey enough of the artist’s perspective. One of the pieces in the show, a colored pencil drawing of pearls and jewels, looks like a gaudy photograph from afar. When you get up close, you can appreciate how well-drawn it is to look so photorealistic. But it’s still a bit tacky.
The best pieces in the Colored Pencil exhibit show something unique about the artist’s point of view. Deborah Maklowski’s “Sirocco” evokes the hot, sandy sirocco winds that blow from North Africa to Southern Europe. The picture’s fluid movement and blended hues make these gusts of wind look almost cosmic—and make the viewer feel the wind viscerally in a way that a more lifelike image might not. Tanja Gant’s “1992” is strikingly photorealistic, yet its power comes not just through its realism but also its subject matter. In Gant’s portrait, a young man sits confined in a straightjacket with a menacing stare that makes it remarkably difficult for the viewer to look straight at him.
A couple of the drawings have a computer generated, almost futuristic quality to them. The woman in Cecile Baird’s “Strangely Beautiful” looks like a sci-fi, posthuman movie star. Jesse Lang’s “Adrenaline” resembles a photo from far away, but up close it approaches a kind of artistic uncanny valley. Is the figure in the drawing a man being invigorated by a great splash of water, or a Pixar dad taking some kind of erotic shower? Whether you’re fascinated or freaked out (or both), it’s one of the most attention-grabbing pieces in the exhibit.
Though Colored Pencils is a little light compared with some of the other shows on view in the region, it’s still a pleasant, low-key way to spend a leisurely afternoon. And if you want to turn up the volume, just head upstairs to check out Blush.
At The Mansion at Strathmore to Aug. 6.10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Free. (301) 581-5109. www.strathmore.org/mansion.