From ironic sculptures skewering modern technology to naturalistic wood sculptures and colorful abstract paintings, the latest solo shows at the McLean Project for the Arts exude variety and challenge viewers.
MPA’s Emerson Gallery features a pair of exhibits with styles and materials that make it well-nigh impossible for visitors to confuse which artist did what artwork. The shows opened April 13 and will run through June 10.
“Industry Standards: Works by Chris Combs” provides an inventive array of mechanical contrivances that often are freighted with social meaning.
“I make art with and about technology because I feel the best way to interrogate or question the way that technology has changed our lives is to use it,” said Combs, who has been making this kind of art since 2017.
“So I design circuit boards, do programming and design these machines,” he said. “In some cases, I use things that have already been used elsewhere and carve them up, change them to be what I want them to be.”
Each artwork addresses some aspect of the built environment, said the artist, who graduated in 2007 with a degree in photojournalism from the former Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.
“I’m interested in the way the world has changed,” Combs said. “We’re sort of like boiled frogs. We’ve all gotten smartphones and are on social networks. So much has changed out from under us.”
Combs’ works sometimes are interactive. “Black Box,” for example, encourages viewers to move their fingers close to the black screen and activate sensors to reveal Amazon products, vintage magazine advertisements, slide decks used in entrepreneurial pitches and finally sardonic statements about the state of society.
Another sculpture, “This Machine Hates Kids,” uses a camera programmed with artificial intelligence that scans for children or photos of them and activates flashing lights (and mutable beacon) when it detects one.
Combs buys many components for his artworks from surplus stores and eBay and uses modern reproductions of vintage braided electrical cords, which do not use fire-prone paper as an insulator.
The other show on display in the Emerson Gallery is “Concerns: Sculpture by George Lorio.” These sculptures have a decidedly natural feel to them and initially appear to be reworked logs. But closer inspection reveals much more effort and intention on the artist’s part.
“I come to them with an idea,” he said.
Lorio creates his sculptures using plywood armatures overlaid with materials from fallen trees, which he holds in place using Elmer’s glue, a product that doesn’t eat into the wood. The resulting artworks, which look as if they would require a fair amount of effort to lift, actually are quite light.
Lorio prefers using oak and maple wood for his sculptures, but avoids poplar because it has a hairy inner layer. One of his favorite techniques is to apply a mosaic of tiny circular cross-sections of branches to the ends of logs, where viewers might expect to see tree rings.
Even in death, forests do great things for the Earth and people need to be better custodians of them, the artist said.
“We’re really not taking care of our forests at all,” he said.
MPA’s Atrium Gallery is home to “With My Face Against the Future: Paintings by Josh Whipkey.” These abstract artworks, made using acrylic and spray paints, reflect how the artist has alternated between larger and smaller paintings, the latter of which he often works on several at a time.
Many of the works reference Ariadne of Greek mythology and her connection with the Minotaur’s labyrinth, which often is associated with people’s unconscious and subconscious minds.
Whipkey – who originally is from Connellsville, Pa., and now lives in Warrenton – said he often deals with the theme of anxiety.
“When I make a painting, I’m trying to make an object that mirrors my anxiety and understands it,” he said.
MPA began putting out open calls for solo shows a year and a half ago after so many artists said they had lost exhibition opportunities during the pandemic, said Nancy Sausser, MPA’s curator and exhibitions director. This resulted in a trio of solo shows last spring and, based upon the positive reaction from patrons, led MPA to repeat the process this year.
Sausser said she likes to look for commonalities between works displayed by artists at joint shows. The artists participating in the current exhibits all infuse their artworks with meaning on multiple levels and introduce difficult ideas, she said.
MPA’s Atrium Gallery is open during the McLean Community Center’s regular operating hours of Mondays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fridays from 8 a.m. to midnight, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to midnight and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. The Emerson Gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The community center is located at 1234 Ingleside Ave. in McLean. For more information about the exhibits and MPA, visit mpaart.org.