Photography retrospective at MAP a haunting family album

June 27, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

The Maryland Art Place retrospective of Virginia photographer Sally Mann immediately gives the impression that her camera has not been put down in the last 20 years.

Although this mini-retrospective capsulizes her various landscape and portrait series too briefly to offer a firm enough sense of the photographer, her skill in various formats always comes through. You can easily see why she was included in the recent Whitney Biennial in New York, where her photographs more than held their own.

Her most striking body of work in the MAP exhibit is a series of "Family Pictures" done from 1985 to the present. These family snapshots of her three children are disturbing takes on that most familiar genre.

When her kids indulge in dressing-up sessions, for instance, the putting on of makeup is also an identity makeover. Sure, the kids want to be like Mom, but what is captured beyond mere make believe is a sexual precociousness that makes you wonder about some childish ways. And the fact that she is photographing her own children makes Mann's pictures even more disturbing as documents.

Then there is "The Wet Bed," a grim black and white photo of her youngest daughter sleeping on a stained mattress. Every mom, like it or not, has come into a bedroom and seen such a mess. In the Mann household, she raises her finger not to scold, but to snap a photograph. Mann captures the sort of scenes that may happen in every household, but that are at odds with the romanticized images of childhood we prefer to put in our photo albums.

In the second-floor gallery at Maryland Art Place is an audio-visual exhibit titled "Connections: Gender in Relationships." The exhibit is built around an hour-long slide presentation that includes segments by 22 artists from the mid-Atlantic. The segments vary considerably in quality. After seeing the young family of Mann downstairs it's interesting to seeing diverse views of adult gender-related issues upstairs.

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The Spring 1991 Juried Exhibition at the School 33 Art Center is a pleasant surprise in that juried shows often are glancing overviews of dozens of artists working in as many styles, but this compact exhibit, curated by New York critic Kellie Jones, presents the work of only four artists. We really see what each has to offer, with breathing room between them.

Painter Cynthia Hawkins likes to isolate simple geometric shapes on the canvas, but the intended spiritual content of these images fails to resonate. Another painter, Diane Kuthy, has a whole other agenda. Her oil on paper paintings are all about layers of color against which vague forms seem to rise; these forms sometimes resemble planet-like orbs, but in other cases they aren't sufficiently suggestive.

Photographer Robert Salazar's clever photographic composites rely on a triptych format. Typically, a subject whose arms are wrapped around herself will playfully be made to seem like a multi-armed Hindu goddess. Bending their hands and arms this way and that, Salazar's contemporary subjects present us with gestures that reveal how body language can both express and distort.

Sculptor Leslie Zelamsky is represented by six columns made by stacking small wooden slats. These have real architectural presence in the gallery, but looking between the slats we see that the columns are hollow, in other words, they're containers for emptiness as much as the fillers of it.

In the second-level installation space of School 33, Alex Nosevich has built an environment he calls "Heroes." Relying on such objects as a tire, license plate, orange traffic cone and road debris, he gives a good sense of how highways were constructed in the post-World War II years. This material is allied with images and text about a war hero for whom a road has been dedicated.

Nosevich's installation would be more effective in a larger space with a longer ribbon of road -- more actual distance -- to put us all on that highway.

Because his point is to show how war heroes and highways haven't always fared so well in recent years, it seems a missed opportunity that he doesn't make a connection between the military and highways: the post-war national highway defense act that spurred the building of an interstate network to move troops and travelers from one state to another in case of war. The photographs of Sally Mann and the audio-visual installation "Connections: Gender in Relationships" remain at Maryland Art Place, at 218 W. Saratoga St., through July 13. Call 962-8565.

The Spring 1991 Juried Exhibition and "Heroes: An Installation by Alex Nosevich" remain at the School 33 Art Center, at 1427 Light St., through July 12. Call 396-4641.

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