Visual artists have been known to be dedicated to their models. Will Barnet regularly painted his family, and Anne Getty can’t seem to get past babies.Artist Jessica van Brakle, who lives in Olney, favors cranes. What started out as an element of her thesis at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C., turned into a fascination that led her to subscribe to crane magazines and even to go up in a few for an aerial view.
“I’m friends with crane operators now,” she says. “As much as I try to learn about them, they’re mysterious to me. They’re kind of majestic to me. They’re like the modern-day unicorn.”
Van Brakle’s latest work is part of “DC Emerging: New Urban and Domestic Interpretations” at VisArts in Rockville. Featuring five upcoming regional artists who work in an array of mediums, “Emerging” premiered last Sunday and will be on view through Aug. 11.
After becoming interested in the design of cranes, van Brakle says she used bright, often curving designs to interplay with the rigid structure of her muse.
“A lot of balancing of this industrial crane with botanical or domestic patterns, so that it was that balance of feminine and masculine [qualities],” she observes.
Currently a fellow at the Hamiltonian Gallery and a resident artist at the Arlington Arts Center, van Brakle has been studying 19th century landscapes and incorporating their outlines into her work. Many of the black-and-white pieces depict the large machines in the backdrop of a snowy vastness. Although her works still feature cranes whether abstract or clearly defined van Brakle also likes to paint pieces on some of the canvases that look like pixels, as she says they share a link with cranes.
“They’re like the building blocks of images as far as digitally [speaking], so I like how that relates to the idea of building,” she says.
While her art is evolving, van Brakle isn’t sure she ever will be finished building her crane repertoire.
“As much as I am into the cranes, I can’t imagine that they’re going anywhere anytime soon,” she says.
VisArts Gallery Director Brett John Johnson says the show’s purpose is to highlight up and coming area talent.
“DC Emerging kind of refers to the fact that they’re emerging in their careers,” he says. “But it also refers to the fact as to how they all work, where they kind of take the urban and domestic life that’s around them and build upon that to create their artwork.”
Van Brakle is not the only crane-centric work to be on display. Sculptures by Sean Lundgren, a Red Dirt Studio member in Mt. Rainier, offer his take on the behemoth machines.
“He’s definitely playing with similar structural type ideas, on almost a more literal way, which I think should lend an interesting counterpoint to some of the more conceptual work,” Johnson says.
As Lundgren overlaps with van Brakle in their affection for cranes, some of van Brakle’s ivy-like patterns in her earlier works are reminiscent of designs used by fellow “Emerging” artist Maggie Gourlay. Working out of her Kensington studio, Gourlay positions common sights such as wallpaper patterns and furniture in new ways.
“She kind of combines them into more a structural sculpture that is somewhat narrative…It kind of has this element of human quality to it in that there’s a human footprint to it,” Johnson says. “You know somebody’s been a part of it, but it’s still strange in the end.”
The paintings on paper of Washington, D.C., artist Mariah Anne Johnson is also exhibited in the show. Johnson creates both large fabric installations as well as paintings and drawings. Each of these mediums shows a very refined understanding of color.
“She kind of also plays on narrative and story,” Johnson says.
Rounding out the show is McLean, Va.-based artist Mike Dowley, whose expressionist work demonstrates an equally mastered color palette. The painter earned a master’s degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2008.
While his work largely features otherworldly shapes, he says many of his designs come from things he sees while walking outside.
Pieces such as “Valve” show what may be the inside of an artery, with varying shades of red mingling with blacks, reds and greens.
Before entering graduate school, Dowley says he created mostly figurative and representational art, but as he learned about expressionistic artists like Philip Guston, his style changed dramatically.
“I started feeling like I could see why he was doing it and it wasn’t sloppy it was actually very controlled,” Dowley says. “And that was like an eye-opening thing.”
When he’s not painting in his studio, Dowley works as a graphic designer for companies such as Georgetown Learning Centers. While he acknowledges that he must work with certain color palettes and be mindful of commercial expectations, the work helps change things up.
“It’s a good break from painting and I basically work in the same kind of mode,” he says.
Although the artists in the show have had their work displayed in many parts of the country from Los Angeles to Miami, the VisArts exhibit shows the new faces of local talent.
“DC Emerging: New Urban and Domestic Interpretations” runs at the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts (VisArts), 155 Gibbs St., Suite 300, Rockville, through Aug. 11. An artist talk will be featured at the gallery on July 23, and a reception will be Aug. 4. Call 301-315-8200 or visit www.visartscenter.org.