Jeff McMahon

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through March 15

Gillian Brown

at I Space, through March 8

Katy Fischer: Highlands Commute

at Julia Friedman, through March 15

In the absence of grand meanings, artists sometimes mix playfulness with gentle humor to create a quiet poetry, calling into question the value of imagery without abandoning all belief in it.

Jeff McMahon addresses a fundamental paradox: that a painting or photo can be both an illusion of something and an object in itself. His 20 works at Bodybuilder and Sportsman include representational paintings, abstract paintings, photographs, and two drawings; he admits that some people can’t understand exhibiting work that “looks like a group show.” His idea of a “signature style” is to place a white border around each image; in his statement he distinguishes the canvas or paper object from the image that’s placed on it, asserting their separateness–which the border underlines.

The photograph Copper Art 2 both invokes and parodies the idea of the image as powerful. We see almost 50 copper medallions hanging on a Peg-Board (the occasion was a swap meet). Here the artist tweaks mass-culture image making as arbitrary conjuring: a horse or mushroom medallion is presented with the same care, or lack of care, as a Madonna and child. Limbs is a large oil painting of bare branches clustered around an empty center: one is both looking through branches at the sky and at brush strokes no more purposeful than the folds in rumpled bedsheets. Dawn Ship, showing a sunrise at sea and a ship outlined in broad brush strokes suggestive of Chinese painting, both invokes an ancient painterly tradition and seems almost cartoonish.

Such paintings suggest a tension between representation and abstraction, and in his “combinations” McMahon groups paintings and photos in radically different styles. “Combination 23” is made up of ten works. Adjacent to the painterly Composition 2, whose soft shades of gray, blue gray, and green gray reference fine-art abstraction, is the abstract drawing Ask, Throw-Up, whose bulbous shapes recall comic books. The touristy photo Atlantic City Reflection, showing the sun glistening on the sea, is hung next to Texas Road 35 (Nostalgia), an abstracted landscape in broad brush strokes of green and blue. Seeing these works together undercuts the authority of each style, but because landscapes have a common form, the viewer is encouraged to see echoes of each in the others.

McMahon, a Philadelphia native born in 1972, dates his mature work to his years at the School of the Art Institute, where he earned an MFA in 2000–though even before grad school he was “making paintings about paintings, painting faux frames on paintings.” But art isn’t his only subject: his combination of styles critiques ambition generally. The spare painting Seeing as How This Is a 44 Magnum, the Most Powerful Handgun in the World, and Would Blow Your Head Clean Off, You’ve Got to Ask Yourself One Question addresses macho posturing: at left Clint Eastwood points a gun at a space empty except for splotches of yellow green paint. Though these suggest a slight splatter effect, they’re hardly the right color for blood–and the anomaly of Eastwood’s pose in this mostly gentle show also suggests a joke on human aggression.

Gillian Brown projects video onto three-dimensional objects, some of which are transparent so that the imagery is also seen behind them; her free-floating illusions definitely undercut the idea of picture as truth. Born in New Hampshire in 1951 and now living in Fairfield, Iowa, she began questioning representation and perception by painting imagery from photographs on three-dimensional installations–putting pictures of family members, for example, on a staircase like one in her childhood home. Then she became friends with painter Inga McCaslin Frick: “We were both interested in exploring perceptual issues and thinking about how we think,” Brown says. Frick moved into video, and Brown collaborated with her before making her own video sculptures, four of which are on view at I Space (along with a solo work of Frick’s and a collaboration with her).

Brown’s fragile magic recalls the charm of lantern shows, stereoscopic slides, and shadow puppetry, configuring images as conjurer’s tricks. And the way she includes lenses makes optics and eyesight explicit subjects. In an untitled work, images are projected on two glovelike hands hanging in a birdcage as well as on a cloth screen at the back of it. Projected on the left hand are two hands that appear to build a house of cards while a card house on the right keeps falling down. At another point a magician releasing a bird is projected on one hand, then it flies from one hand to the other. A lens at the back of the cage focuses on the screen a video image of skaters and divers–Brown calls them “people who broke loose.” Creating tension between opposites, the piece juxtaposes freedom and entrapment, construction and destruction.

The relationship between what we see and what we know is the subject of Insight Out, inspired by a diagram of human sight in an essay by Rene Descartes. The sculptural element consists of wires extending from the outline of a hand, then crossing and ending at an upside-down hand inside a glass bulb, suggesting the way the eye’s lens focuses an upside-down image on the retina. On the rear of the bulb, sandblasted so that it will hold an image, Brown projects a video of herself writing on a blackboard. Her marks are simple vertical strokes, as if she were counting, but occasionally more complex chalk drawings appear: cuneiform signs, a diagram of the Pythagorean theorem. Language and mathematics seem at once invocations of the world and arbitrary games of mark making; by encasing her blackboard imagery within a model of the eye, Brown underlines the dependence of knowledge on subjective human perception.

Born in rural Delaware in 1973, Chicagoan Katy Fischer uses conventional media–pen and silverpoint on paper–to produce surprisingly unconventional drawings, 13 of which are at Julia Friedman. These quiet landscapes don’t command attention at first, perhaps because they have no center: in fact, their subject is the absence of a center. They were inspired by photographs Fischer took while driving with the idea of making drawings from them; she’d begun making snapshots after she got her first car in 1991, out of a “feeling of total exhilaration at how beautiful I thought it was on the open road, and some sense of nostalgia for the highway as our defining landscape.” But after doing a lot of driving and reading a couple of books on environmentalism, Fischer “started to be very concerned about car culture and suburban sprawl,” a concern that informs this work.

There’s a subtle humor in the way Fischer precisely limns every blade of roadside grass, giving each one the loving detail and solidity of a Durer drawing, while leaving the road areas blank. Her perspective is true to the driver’s sidelong glance, a glance reflected in these centerless landscapes–mere backdrops to motion rather than, as in earlier times, grand approaches to a palace.

Fischer had an early interest in funky painter Ida Applebroog, whom she still admires, but more recent passions have included Fra Angelico and Vija Celmins–and what vivifies these drawings is an almost spiritual affection for details. Embankment 5 focuses on the small discolorations and cracks in a curb, even though it seems the dark landscape behind and distant trees outlined against the sky would be more imposing. Almost humanizing the curb gives it a powerful but ambivalent presence: Fischer finds beauty in its random variations while acknowledging the way that roads and road travel have displaced the natural world, hemming it in and offering in return only a void of blurred motion and the memory of offhand glimpses.