New McLean Project for the Arts exhibition features moody landscapes

“Caution” is among the large-scale photographs by David Douglas that now are on display at McLean Project for the Arts’ satellite location at 1446 Chain Bridge Road in McLean.

Photographers usually document the world straightforwardly, content with the subject matter in front of them.

Alexandria artist and teacher David Douglas takes a different tack, bending the medium to his will, combining and manipulating disparate images of familiar Northern Virginia landscapes to produce moody, dark, outsized artworks.

“They’re metaphors for who we are, where we are, how we react to the land we walk across,” he said. “Depending on where you are, it speaks to you.”

A selection of Douglas’ works, “Moving Through,” is on display through Jan. 21 at the McLean Project for the Arts’ (MPA) satellite location at 1446 Chain Bridge Road in McLean.

The images, mostly black-and-white but with some color accents, typically measure several feet in each direction and evoke a wide range of emotions.

Empty, unkempt back yards are the setting for many of the images, and they’re usually filled with stark, gnarled, leafless trees and parts of white clapboard buildings.

Douglas, who holds a bachelor of arts degree from Virginia Intermont College and master of fine arts degree in painting from James Madison University, started out as a painter. He began photographing as part of his career as a teacher.

The 58-year-old Alexandria native – now a drawing, painting and photography teacher at Episcopal High School – long has trodden the Potomac River landscapes featured in MPA’s exhibit. He has worked on the photo series for about 15 years.

Part of the photos’ emotional resonance for local viewers comes from those river locales, such as Jones Point in Alexandria. The trees, buildings and stone-lined riverbanks all feel familiar, but not exactly as one remembers.

The images have a spare, somber feel and prompt questions from viewers. Who is that little girl wandering in the yard, why is she there and what is she thinking? Is the boy in swim trunks lying face down on the lawn crying or just in a deep sleep?

“These works are deeply engaging and elementally familiar, comforting and disquieting, moments of life lived into by artist and viewer alike,” MPA’s exhibitions director Nancy Sausser wrote in her introductory essay about the show.

While some photographers are unrepentant gearheads, slavishly buying the latest techno-gizmos in hopes of obtaining a slight creative edge, Douglas shoots most of his images with an odd collection of tools: view and pinhole cameras and inexpensive cameras bought online or at antique stores.

The artist photographs various subjects, scans rocks and other items he has brought back to the studio, and combines them for the final images he desires.

Douglas reworks parts of the images with pencils, pens and colored wax, and builds the photos through many layers in Photoshop. He blurs some areas of less visual interest to focus viewers’ attention on key compositional elements.

“I’m building these landscapes with all these things,” he said. “It’s often a view from many different vantage points. I use those liberties to build that composition using my artistic instincts.”

He prints the images in large sections, then coats them with layers of polymer and hangs them like wallpaper on panels. Douglas has plenty of experience doing that, as his family operated a business that hung handmade wallpapers.

Some of the works feature ropes and a hose that are looped in ways that resemble nooses. The effect is ambiguous, but not intentionally macabre, Douglas said.

“It’s perfectly fine with me that people view the work and have that interpretation to it,” he said.

For more information about the photos and the McLean Project for the Arts, visit www.mpaart.org or call (703) 790-1953.

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