“Neon Planar” and “Offerings” At Civilian Art Projects to Oct. 19 Two D.C. artists find occasional beauty in decay.

Marissa Long, "Honey Snakes"

For several more weeks at Mt. Vernon Square gallery Civilian Art Projects, exuberance and gloom live in surprising synchronicity.

The works of two D.C.-based artists, Nikki Painter and Marissa Long, share an unsettling vibe: Painter’s mixed-media works and Long’s photographs might be described as nature morte, with an emphasis on the morte. Painter’s building blocks are architectural forms undercut by disarray and destruction; Long’s photographs depict items that were once alive, even beautiful, but have since decayed.

Painter’s works balance vibrant shades of fluorescence with more subtle flourishes, like penciled-in cross-hatchings and lines sketched on milkily translucent drafting film. In doing so, she somewhat eccentrically channels threads from the suprematists and the constructivists (particularly in “Shuffle”). “Warp,” meanwhile, calls to mind Charles DeMuth’s “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.”

At times, disorder and destruction emerge as more than just hints. In “Surge,” an octopus-limbed storm surge seems to topple a Babel-like architectural structure, while the ironically named “Home,” one of her best, uses popsicle sticks freeze-framed in a moment of Hurricane Sandy–esque devastation.

Still, the chaos can get wearisome. Some of Painter’s most interesting pieces toy with basic geometric forms, like in “Copse,” one of several assemblages enclosed in cramped, transparent cubes, in which Painter offers a riot of dainty squares, some black and white and some colored, suggesting television static. In a large, site-specific installation, her representation of a house is overshadowed by an unexpectedly delicate checkerboard curtain made from loosely attached squares of cardboard.

The subjects of Long’s photographs, by contrast, don’t seem so serene. They just lie there, moldering—modern-day variants of the venerable vanitas painting. In “Halves Huddle,” Long aggregates overripe melons, avocados, and sweet potatoes into a stomach-churning mound. In “Mushroom Modules,” she piles up mushrooms, a fish, and ginkgo leaves. And in “Candle,” she coagulates a severed antler and scattered feathers with dripped wax.

When Long dials back the putrefaction, her work becomes more appealing. “Honey Snakes” includes an Edenic serpent, but the dread is leavened by bride-white flowers and an unexpectedly pleasing horizontal background arrangement of rose, white, and blue. “Shadow Guard,” meanwhile, features a glowing shell, shining ethereally within a forest of gloomy vegetation.

The most notable flourish in Long’s work is a twist on drip painting: a series of gentle, accidental rivulets caused by damp, multicolored confetti seeping into white table linens. It’s a rare fanciful note in her work, or in Painter’s. In both artists’ visions, the world is falling apart—gloriously, perhaps, but coming apart nonetheless.

Due to a reporting error, this review misidentified objects in Marissa Long's work, "Mushroom Modules." The image depicts mushrooms, not clam and mussel shells.

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