In considering "The House of Chance and Mischief," Renee Stout's latest exhibition at Hemphill Fine Arts, it's helpful to think about the movie "Inception."
There's no direct connection between the two things. The Washington artist hasn't even seen the film. But there are parallels between the themes of her suggestive and richly satisfying show and those of director Christopher Nolan's cinematic blockbuster.
Let's start with the title.
If it sounds like a straightforward, if slightly poetic, definition of the human subconscious, that's pretty much what it is. The architectural structure Stout refers to is a metaphor taken from an old, recurring dream of hers, in which the artist would find herself wandering through a familiar-looking house whose inner doors opened onto rooms she never knew existed.
The show, which contains the artist's trademark mix of paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, photography, mixed media and installation, is laid out something like a house, too. You'll pass through - and, in one case, peek into - a series of four successive rooms, much as Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb and his team of dream commandos moved through an architect-designed dreamscape in "Inception." As you go deeper into the show, the nature of the work itself changes, from the somewhat festive first, or "party" room, as the artist thinks of it, into the depths of the subconscious mind. Not your mind, but Stout's.
The last room contains an actual bed.
The art won't put you to sleep, however. A journey through the show is more invigorating than sleepy. It's allusive, absorbing, scary, even funny at times. Its iconography may be personal, but it's far from private.
That's because Stout's imagery alludes to things we can all relate to: hope, fear, desire and memory. Her most frequent symbolism incorporates objects from so-called "spiritual supply" shops - the botanicas, fortune tellers and other mystical holes-in-the-wall familiar to visitors to New Orleans and other magical places. Even Washington has them. They sell potions, herbs, soaps and the like, with the promise to bring love, luck or wealth, or to ward off enemies.
You'll find allusions to those products throughout Stout's work. "It's Gone Be Alright" contains a virtual library of false promises: "Triple Action Power Bath"; "Go Away Evil Wash." "The Black Room With Bitches Brew" features little glass vials, empty save for the dreams they contain. Dreams of a new lover, a better job, the chance to correct past mistakes. Whatever.
There's a feeling of portent - of open-ended investigation - that makes the work thrum with a fertile psychic energy. And that's where "The House of Chance and Mischief" is most like "Inception." As with the movie, Stout's art invites you into a world of the imagination, but one where her ideas are only there to encourage yours to grow.
Stout is a prodigious and talented artist. Earlier this year, the 52-year-old received the 2010 David C. Driskell Prize from Atlanta's High Museum, an annual $25,000 award honoring the contribution of one African American artist.
Stout calls herself lucky, saying the money came at just the right time, and enabled her to frame several of the pieces in this show. But luck had nothing to do with "The House of Chance and Mischief." Or if it did, we are the beneficiaries.