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Review | In the galleries: The power of still life, the drama of demons

Although they’re rendered in a modern photorealist style, the still-life paintings in John Stark’s Connersmith show seem to exist outside a specific era. The works in “Feed Your Demons” are part of an artistic continuum stretching back to the 16th century. Yet two of them pull in contrary directions — one toward a shadowy past and the other into a well-lighted contemporary supermarket.

Most of the Glasgow, Scotland-based artist’s recent oils depict simple, sumptuous foodstuffs, burnished with light and sometimes gleaming with moisture. Begun during the isolation of the pandemic shutdown, the pictures are appropriately interior and microcosmic. “Blueberry Hill” constructs a little universe out of a mound of berries and a few drops of water, while “Life and Death” poses a glass of deep-purple wine next to a marbled slab of bright-red beef. The meat is perched on a glossy heap of plastic wrap, while the glass subtly reflects the artist’s silhouette.

One of the paintings that alters the formula is “As Above So Below,” which arrays four pieces of fruit on a 1960s stainless-steel tray. At far left is an avocado bearing a product-code sticker that, slyly, can be seen only in the image reflected on the tray. In this neoclassical composition, today’s world is discernible, but just barely.

The other variation, “A Light Shined in the Darkness and the Darkness Did Not Comprehend It,” is more conspicuous. It’s a picture of a bowl of cherries and a glass of cherry beer in front of a smirking monk from whose mouth a cherry stem protrudes. Although the hooded man’s expression may appear diabolical, Stark’s idea of demons is from Tibetan Buddhism, not medieval Christianity. According to curator Jamie Smith’s essay on the show, the artist follows a Tibetan monk’s advice to “cherish … the hostile gods and demons of apparent existence.”

To reveal another aspect of Stark’s cosmology, and of his artistic style, Connersmith is exhibiting one more painting separate from “Feed Your Demons.” This much larger and more stylized picture shows a procession of witches and demons approaching a city, representing the artist’s view of the history of civilization. In Stark’s vision, good and evil are as intimately affiliated as light and darkness.

John Stark: Feed Your Demons Through April 29 at Connersmith, 1013 O St. NW. Open by appointment.

There are many striking pieces in “Black Like Me,” a 12-artist show at Zenith Gallery’s downtown location, but one literally towers above the rest. Wesley Clark’s “I See You Here & Forever” is a seven-foot statue, made of painted foam and resin, of a man with a cowled head. His face is tilted and his eyes gaze upward, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t behold everything around him, since his arms are covered in additional eyes.

If Clark’s sculpture is the most imposing, many others have visual appeal and thematic heft. Among Bernie Houston’s exuberant, driftwood-derived characters is a purple-garbed Mardi Gras reveler, while Ibou N’Diaye’s stylized, carved-wood figures include a guitar-playing griot in a dynamic pose. New growth blooms from the steel-wire feet of Kristine Mays’s “Freedom,” and one of Chris Malone’s colorful mosaic-covered creatures is dropping a gun in an anti-violence gesture.

The highlights of the more-or-less flat entries include Hubert Jackson’s expressionist portrait of Duke Ellington and vibrant collages by Claudia “Aziza” Gibson-Hunter that center on such elements as a robust black squiggle or a vivid red diagonal. If Jackson’s painting salutes a standard Black history subject, Gibson-Hunter’s collages are boldly individualistic.

Black Like Me Through April 22 at Zenith Gallery, 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

For about a decade, W.C. Richardson (1953-2022) made square paintings of interlocking dark rectangles highlighted by light-colored halos and usually positioned on even paler backgrounds. With the exhibit “A Memorial Exhibition,” Addison/Ripley Fine Art reveals earlier strategies of the artist and teacher, who was chair of the University of Maryland art department for a decade. Richardson’s pictures usually began atop a right-angled grid, but there are many curves in his back catalogue.

About half of the 21 paintings on exhibit were made since 2010 and feature the cunning interplay of soft colors and hard-edge forms. Among the earlier items are pictures anchored by fields of brick-like blocks rendered with unexpectedly tactile pigment, and also allover compositions of repeated circles and spirals punctuated by centered black dots. An immersive example of the latter series is 2004’s “Solar Song,” which is mostly in warming shades of orange. It’s methodical and explosive at the same time.

Although Richardson’s abstractions don’t attempt to create any illusion of reality, they do hint at depth, shadow and glowing light. They also have a great sense of rhythm. The way the artist’s forms align, intersect and diverge suggests melodic notes and phrases. One picture is titled “Loop Phase,” a likely reference to Steve Reich’s music, and while Richardson’s work is more improvisational than Reich’s, both share a stately sense of structure.

W.C. Richardson: A Memorial Exhibition Through April 15 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Vigor and size are what’s immediately evident about Ainsley Burrows’s paintings. The six large pictures in the DC Arts Center’s “Displacement” exhibit combine the fractured imagery of cubism and the kinetic gestures of futurism with the colossal sweep of abstract expressionism. Only after a powerful first impression is the viewer likely to notice the faces that peer from between the black-outlined brushstrokes.

Burrows is a Jamaica-born Black painter and performance poet who divides his time between Brooklyn and Baltimore. The canvases in this selection, the widest of which stretches 22 feet, are from the artist’s immigration series, and seem to evoke what one title calls “The Long Complicated History of America.” Yet the painting with the largest number of faces peering from the outlined strokes has a title pulled from current events: “Kharkiv,” the Ukrainian city battered but not conquered by Russian invaders last year.

How good, really, was Pablo Picasso?

Considering the Picasso-like imagery in another of these paintings, “Assimilation,” it’s possible that Burrows was inspired by the Spanish painter’s “Guernica,” another sprawling expressionist war dispatch. But Burrows limits his representational imagery to faces, filling the rest of his canvases with swoops and swirls. In his pictures, history is less a sequence of events than a whirlwind of emotions.

Ainsley Burrows: Displacement Through April 16 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW.

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