Installation view of “Untitled” by Nicole Mueller (2016)
Installation view of “Untitled” by Nicole Mueller (2016)

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Nicole Mueller’s “First Cut” is an ambitious first foray for an untested artist. The solo show occupies the entire storefront gallery at VisArts at Rockville, and her work holds its own as an anchor for the space. No small feat. Given what she’s accomplished, it would be coarse to ask her for more.

Mueller’s show includes a series of large-size abstract-expressionist paintings along with a pair of smaller collages. While it’s enough that she has put together a coherent show—and she has, exceeding all reasonable expectations for an artist with not a lot of experience working at this scale—Mueller also got the chance to monkey with the windows and the very light that entered the space. Mueller took her shot, wrapping the storefront windows of the Gibbs Street Gallery at VisArts with brightly colored Dura-Lar overlays and spraypaint. But she missed an opportunity.

“First Cut” comprises dense mixed-media paintings, executed with all-over acrylics but also spray paint and house paint. Mueller’s mark-making is fat and flat. She favors bold tones even when she’s working with bright colors, as in the sunset atmospherics of “Clamor” (2016). There is no center in Mueller’s paintings: “Shape Shifters #1” (2015), for example, bears the same cluster of seafoam greens, drab olives, emergency reds, and violent violets from one corner of the canvas to the other. Her paintings are thick and humid but also accessible and attractive.

The isotropy of Mueller’s compositions isn’t a problem with any specific piece. But across an entire show’s worth of paintings, it borders on repetitive—the great peril of any abstract-expressionist show. There’s not enough in the way of movement or negative space to distinguish the cataclysmic maelstrom of “Cacophony” (2016) from that of “Jamboree” (2016) or the next one. The sequence is broken up by a couple of collages, “Character Cut #1” and “#2” (both 2016), a welcome change in rhythm.

Mueller’s collages have their own compositional ticks. While the move away from support and canvas might have given the artist license to really play with space, these pieces are still fundamentally rectilinear and dense. In a lot of ways, Mueller’s work resembles the zany paintings of Elizabeth Murray (or, more locally, maybe, abstractions by Maggie Michael), but minus the free-form animation.

The untitled window installation—which is, again, a success—might have been an opportunity for Mueller to paint with light and let the movement of the sun dictate the form and motion of the “painting.” This light installation falls on walls already occupied by paintings instead, giving it the feeling of, well, window dressing. But what if she’d hung up empty canvas, gesturing at abstraction instead and letting chance in? That idea is probably not right for her work, but she might have done more with the installation by doing something different.

“First Cut” is exactly that: an excellent introduction to Mueller’s admirable abstractions. It’s also a first draft, a document she will want to return to as she builds up new series, develops new show concepts, and turns the page as a painter. In a way, she might have gone even further by treating this show as more of a sketch than a finished presentation. Part of learning control as a painter is learning exactly when to give it up.

“Turning Tables 2” by Sobia Ahmad (2016)

“Gen-Y 3.0” must be misnamed. The artists in this VisArts group show are far too young to occupy that netherrealm between Generation X and millennials. Most of this show’s artists, whose ages range from 17 to 27, fall squarely within the latter bracket, albeit toward the far end of it. With work by artists who are possibly only weeks removed from high school, this show is as fresh as it gets.

So it’s a delight that so much of the art in “Gen-Y 3.0” is not just legitimately reviewable but downright savvy. This smartly juried show features works across media, from prints to photography to painting to film. Like the youngest generation itself (whatever we’re calling it), “Gen-Y 3.0” is admirably diverse, featuring twice as many women artists as men and many artists of color.

Qin Tan, a recent graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, contributes both painting and video. There’s something unnerving about her paintings, which feature scattered, barely-there marks on canvas in the vein of Cy Twombly. One piece is particularly disquieting: a series of futile squiggles and hopeless gestures rendered in acrylic against an all-black abyss. The title of the piece is “Online Dating” (2016). Need she say more?

Some of the work in “Gen-Y 3.0” reads as young and unpracticed. Richard Munaba’s tech-oriented video works show more digital wizardry than conceptual rigor: “Staycation With Katy” (2016), an interactive video, allows users to roam through a forest (using a video-game controller) and peek at snippets of Katy Perry’s video for “Roar.” There’s better art lurking in Munaba’s forest, and it could be revealed by stripping out all the Perry, giving viewers instead the faux-sensation of a relaxing walk through the woods. That would be fireworks.

Angelique Nagovskaya’s drawings show remarkable technical range for such a young artist—she’s a high-school student in Kensington. A video by Emmanuel Mones, an undergrad at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is warm and subdued and narrative driven; a video by Sobia Ahmad, an undergrad at Maryland’s College Park campus, works more like a performance and looks more like a photograph. Katherine Akey’s photos from severe Arctic landscapes are a crisp complement to a show that is otherwise focused almost entirely on identity—the currency of the realm.

Amy Berbert’s twin cinemagraphs stand out as formally mature. The videos—“#339 Rykeise S., 18” and “#304 Jamahl L., 23” (both 2016)—are named for Rykeise Shaw and Jamahl Lockwood, young black men shot and killed in Baltimore last year. Berbert captured both videos at the locations where these men were gunned down; each video is a still frame but for one isolated moving figure (e.g., a man pushing a broom outside the convenience store where Shaw was killed). There’s just a touch of music to turn these desolate scenes into .gif-like portraits.

There’s a complication to these works, too (and almost certainly an unintentional one): Berbert, a senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is white. Her work arrives at the center of a conversation—a passionate, live-wire shouting match—about who owns the visuals of the bodies of young black men, captured dead or dying on video and streamed online. Berbert’s work focuses instead on the aftermath, but that debate about the secondhand violence that happens when these videos trend virally is not far from her work. Whether it’s an act of allyship for a white artist to make work about the epidemic of black homicides—and whether that question should apply to the world of art—is a matter best left to the youngest generation. That’s not to buck the question, but to recognize that the adults have had their say.

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