Rachel Farbiarz: Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants (detail), 2009, ink on paper, 15 panels, 45½ by 59 inches overall; at Heiner Contemporary.

Rachel Farbiarz's treatment of the subject matter in her first solo show—the trauma caused by war and other man-made and natural disasters—might have come off as preachy in the wrong hands. But the D.C.-based artist's combination of narrative skill, emotional openness and a light touch lends her work a moving quality. Born in 1977, Farbiarz switched careers in 2008, abandoning her job as an attorney focusing on the civil rights of prisoners. She did not, in other words, follow the common path of art careers, a fact that may account for some of the work's formal limitations. Yet her background has contributed to its particular sense of historical melancholy.

In addition to two assemblage sculptures, Farbiarz showed 12 drawings in the main gallery that variously combine collaged images of human figures, ships and buildings with drawn lines that often end in fanciful loops. In Memorial Hill (2013), dozens of small soldiers march, fight, celebrate or lie dead. Like the red and yellow flags and banners that wave above them, the figures are cut from old magazines, while pebbles, upright shovels and standing wooden memorials and signposts are drawn. Large stretches of empty white paper give the imagery a distant feeling. While these drawings do not break new aesthetic ground—they bring to mind Amy Cutler, the Royal Art Lodge and Saul Steinberg—the tiny scale of the activity manages to pull us in to look closer. The weapons and costumes seem decidedly low-tech, connected to the wars of the 20th century. Jarring juxtapositions—such as that between soldiers kneeling, about to be shot, and a shirtless GI lighting a cigarette—capture the mix of foolishness, bravery and sadness of an era filled with war.

In the 15 text-filled sheets that together make up Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants (2009), loopy handwriting transcribes an emotionally raw speech given by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologizing for the forced adoption of Aboriginal and poor white children within Australia as well as the forced migration of impoverished British children to the commonwealth up until the 1960s. The words wander over the page, shifting in scale, direction and style, with the smallest executed in straightforward cursive and the largest sending out tendrils and curlicues that occasionally cover other words or wrap around other lines. Seen from a distance, the drawings resemble maps, as lighter and darker areas describe the bulges, curves and clusters of geographical entities.

That these drawings also call to mind the stacked and interwoven notations in rabbinical commentaries seems no coincidence, given that several of them interweave Hebrew text. In a series of untitled collages from 2009 that appeared in the back room, Hebrew words become part of the image, sometimes as word bubbles, sometimes standing in for smoke, dirt or sky. In one of these, the sky above a 19th-century image of a commercial street with a ladder is filled with the repeated expression "a'yekah?" ("where are you?"), the question God asked Adam and Eve as they hid after eating the fruit. The script is the kind of Hebrew writing (including indications of vowel sounds) found particularly in diasporic religious texts. The presence of writing used for prayers emphasizes the sense that these works are a meditative working-through of tragedy. As when grief is accompanied by incongruous laughter, their mournfulness is cut with playfulness, an expression of life.