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The works of Ivan Pinkava, a prominent Czech photographer, confirm many of the stereotypes Americans have about Eastern European art: It’s intellectually ponderous, and very, very gray.

Photographing people and objects in low-light, nearly bare studios, Pinkava produces images that “resonate at a basic human level, regardless of the viewer’s background.”

Sometimes this approach works – one can envision a grand banquet (or more precisely, its aftermath) when one sees a large array of grapes scattered on the ground, or the crucifixion from the bloodless bottom half of a torso, or a mathematical axis (“XYZ”) when one sees the point where two walls and a floor meet. Other times it leads to head-scratchers in any language – a drowsy sheep, or squares of padding propped flat against a wall.

Pinkava has a special ability to make even the most ordinary items seem threatening, such as the floral-patterned comforter in what could pass for a crime scene photograph. (In other images, Pinkava toys with what looks like blood spatter, entirely plausible given the execution-room vibe of his backgrounds.)

Pinkava’s most successful works present a concise visual embodiment of an everyday phrase. In Pinkava’s hands, “Throne” is a chair built with unnatural angles, tenuously balanced and covered with dollops of what appears to be sand (think Ozymandias). And “Head” is a sports helmet tossed on the ground, a grim approximation of the aftermath of a beheading. No one said Pinkava’s work isn’t melancholy.

Through Dec. 16 at the American University Museum, (202) 885-1300. Tue-Sun 11-4.