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A user’s guide to “brightveridiansentinelevents,” a new solo exhibit from Patrick McDonough, would be a tome. Among the topics it might include: a primer on seapunk, some literature about hempcrete, background on 3D printing, even a refresher on freecycling. Whether it would work as a key to McDonough’s artwork is a different question. His most complete show to date, which is now on view at the Katzen Art Center at American University, gives viewers the best opportunity yet to access work that is, to put it mildly, standoffish.

Consider the centerpiece in the show: “1300209-throwing aloe vera golf balls at a steel drum,” an installation and a video, or perhaps a stage set with performance documentation. In the museum’s third-floor gallery, McDonough painted one wall and an attendant floor area a verdant hue bordering on toxic (the “bright veridian” from which the shows draws its name). At one end of this staging area hangs a steel drum, suspended by an armature (painted the same green as the wall). McDonough uses this mock stage to shoot a green-screen video work, also on view. Installed across the gallery, the video shows McDonough, wearing beach shorts and flip-flops, seated in a plastic patio chair, chucking what appear to be golf balls at the steel drum, which appears to hover in space as a result of the green-screen effect. See? You’re already lost.

The golf balls are in fact cast aloe vera, while the green screen has given way to beachy video clips and a seapunk stream of 1990s-looking computer graphics. Slices of kiwi fly through the air in a great turning column as ocean waves lap various beaches in the video. An animated umbrella on a frozen drink twirls while McDonough plunks away at the steel drum with his faux golf balls.

Aloe vera, golf, drinks, steel drum, fruity bev: It’s like an outsider’s view of Jamaica, deconstructed. (And to extend the metaphor even further, hempcrete makes an appearance in several sculptures on view—more on those in a moment.) A viewer who looks closely enough at the show to connect those dots, however, may feel left where he or she started.

In previous shows, McDonough has put up for sale the care of a tattooed patch of skin on his back and examined the life of a pony born on the day of the death of the musician Sparklehorse. In recent exhibits this year, he’s painted the grass of various plots around D.C. white using field-striping paint. Some of the field-project materials make an appearance at the Katzen, but otherwise, this show has nothing to do with those others, except insofar as it’s not offering any handholds.

Like an aughts-era Matthew Barney, McDonough’s work is both performative and sculptural. It feels coded, always. Whereas Barney favors Vaseline as his sculptural medium, McDonough seems taken with secondhand and reusable materials: One sculpture, “131407-deconstructed patio chair with mussels two ways,” is covered over with mussel shells separated out from the waste stream of the popular 14th Street restaurant Marvin. The cast aloe vera in “throwing aloe vera golf buys” even calls to mind Vaseline performances from Barney works.

So approach these artists the same way: Understand that even a solo exhibit of McDonough’s sculpture and performances is just one step toward a larger body of work, the shape of which is yet to come. Start with the sculpture—the simplest and most pleasurable pieces in the show. Specifically, several hempcrete sculptures cast in the shape of loose reusable bags—stay with me here—and touched up with elements such as 3D-printed showerheads—stick with the work!—are formal exercises that anchor an expansive exploration of material, form, labor, and subject matter.

The exhibit is on view to Oct. 20 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

Photos courtesy Patrick McDonough