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“Girls Catching” (2016), one of four large and visually rich collages in A Different Country, Rachel Farbiarz’s presciently titled solo show at G Fine Art, promises joy. At its center, long swaths of bright fabric in pink and white fan out invitingly, and children seem to dance and play beneath them. The grouping anchors a spare composition of similarly buoyant scenes—micro-landscapes of fabric, flowers, ropes, and brightly colored balloons, all populated by dozens of tiny, busy figures in black and white.
Wait. On second thought, what the hell is happening here? Many of the people now seem to be on the move, fleeing. They’re dressed in layers, and some herd children or carry baskets. In fact, few even acknowledge one another’s existence. Gradually, body parts materialize from a pile of rubble and suitcases drawn in graphite. Women and children from different parts of the world, and perhaps different times, navigate a nest of emergency supplies and pathways, like a refugee edition of Chutes and Ladders. In this and other works on view, women stoically engage in Sisyphean tasks: they climb, carry, nurture, and cope. We know these images well.
This baffling experience of looking is something Farbiarz, a D.C.-based artist, strives for. While her process is meticulous—the miniscule collage elements are painstakingly cut from books with a knife, sorted, and filed for future use—her compositions are unplanned and enigmatic, commingling athletes and protesters, tourists and soldiers within absurdist landscapes. In “Men Throwing” (2016), a tangled mass of chairs in both pencil and collage fuses the stillness of domesticity with the chaos of a riot, recalling Doris Salcedo’s powerful use of chairs to signify mass displacement.
The second half of the show consists of Farbiarz’s Documents series, a set of spare pencil drawings based on newspaper photographs of human tragedy, from Germany to Bangladesh, 1941 to today, accompanied by their punch-to-the-gut declarative captions (e.g., “A Syrian father clings to his two-month-old baby as he swims to shore”). While sensitively rendered, these works, some of which hang unframed, feel more like preparatory sketches for the collages, which are the stars of the show.
We are entering a moment when some will wonder what the point is of making art—or looking at it or writing about it—when there remains so much to do. A former civil rights attorney, the artist is quick to note that she doesn’t consider her work a form of activism. In her artist statement, she strikes a confessional tone: “I am sure it is not enough, this watching… It is a sordid, messy business making awful pictures beautiful.”
But most art does not pretend to fix anything. It is borne of a particular artist’s concerns and it waits for us, the viewers, to bring our eyes and ears and our experiences to it. Even at its most opaque, art is inherently democratic. Late last week Farbiarz told me, “I really do think art making and serious encounters with art nurture empathy, not because they are moralizing but because they add depth to the human experience.” Being an active viewer lies in how closely and honestly we are willing to look.
Through Dec. 10 at G Fine Art, 4718 14th St. NW. Thurs.-Sat., 12 p.m.- 5 p.m.