CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Water works: McGuffey floats a group show

After viewing the group exhibition H2O, featuring work by Robin Braun, Rob Browning, and Nini Baekstrom, at the McGuffey Art Center, I came to this conclusion: more shows should include ambient sound.

The quiet burble of trickling water, emanating from Baekstroms Jumping Fish Fountain provides a constant soundtrack that not only nuances the experience of the water-themed pieces but also acts as a counterpoint to each artists individual approach.

Baekstroms cement-and-mosaic-tile sculptures, many representing fish suspended from the ceiling as if just hooked, express the artists interest in life on and in the water. With the exception of the above-mentioned fountain, where water gurgles from the mouth of a nearly vertical fish, Baekstroms pieces only imply the presence of water, working instead through the elements of air and earth.

In Captain Splash and the Soul Searcher, an open boat with a tiled rudder pitches forward atop a pedestal resembling the base of a ships wheel. A nearly featureless woman, made of porous light-colored cement, peers over the prow while a rough-hewn dog sits at the rear. Although the figures appear unworried, Baekstrom introduces a precarious energy by patchily exposing several of the boats ribs.

Braun, in contrast, makes the ocean itself the focus of her oil-on-masonite paintings that capture the momentum of just-breaking or just-broken waves. Lacking figures, her realistic seascapes offer pristine visions of sky, water, and the occasional sliver of beach. But their seeming tranquility is often cut by the menace of an impending storm or the tension of descending fog. Brauns ominous Waterspout is an arresting example of her subtly emotional exploration of natures dark forces.

Water provides the milieu for Brown's strangely beautiful head-and-shoulders portraits in which subjects features are either exaggerated or partially obscured whether by shadows, a diving mask, or even cucumber slices.

In Ironmen, three bare-chested figures look toward the right against a background of peacock blue. Their stylized, identical faces (calling to mind socialist propaganda posters of the past) are lost in shadow as light streams in from the left. The figures only distinction lies in their swim caps one yellow, one white, and one coral red.

Brownings oil-on-canvas images, painted smooth to reveal no brushwork, intrigue by incorporating an edge of the comic and surreal. Although centered, his compositions feel unexpected, and Brownings work emerges as the most compelling and challenging of H2Os many watery delights.

H2O, featuring the paintings of Robin Braun and Rob Browning and the sculptures of Nini Baekstrom, is on view at the McGuffey Art Center through May 28. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.