Although Sheila Pritchard has been an artist since 1963, she has only been getting gallery exposure in recent years. Her master of fine arts thesis exhibit at Towson State University in 1990 was the first real showcase for her work, and her current exhibit at the Life of Maryland Gallery puts even more of that work on display.
But if her exhibition history is limited, she is exuberantly expansive with her choice of mediums and styles. In addition to freely using oil, watercolor, collage and fabric, she readily shifts from the abstract to the representational.
With such an open attitude, it comes as no surprise that when she makes an article of clothing it is more than merely material cut to a certain pattern. Her exhibited "Autobiographical Garment" has so many butterfly designs, peacock feathers and seashells among the items adhering to the cloth that there is something of a crazy quilt sensibility to the assemblage.
Stylistically adhering to her considerable artistic output, as she states in a needlessly dense artist statement, are decorative influences ranging from the Celtic to the Byzantine. If that seems like a lot to take in, brace yourself for the 80 pieces crowding the wall space at the Life of Maryland Gallery. This uneven show desperately needs curatorial editing, however much one might sympathize with an under-exposed artist's desire to finally claim all of a gallery's space for herself.
There are numerous small watercolors and collages, for instance, in which her exploratory abstractions often seem to no particular purpose. Curatorial pruning would help us to focus on the better pieces.
Also, Pritchard does not always seem completely comfortable in larger abstract oil paintings such as "Matins-Lauds-Ruby Morning," in which the clearly defined lines between color zones are at odds with the floating energy of her colors. She is more effective in such abstractions as "The Night Dragon Steals the Sun . . .," with its softly melting color fields, and "Vespers," with its swirling mix of reds and purples.
It's interesting to notice how Pritchard retains her concern with abstract swirls of color and bright patterning in her representational work. Despite some stiffness in her figurative modeling, her realistic paintings hold much promise.
In "The Skirt," her straightforward depiction of a female subject would be a spare composition if it weren't for the skirt itself. The vegetal abstractions on that skirt make for a lively pattern, and they also raise the worthwhile question of what the real subject of this painting is.
Even more attention-grabbing is "Womangarden," featuring a lineup of five confidently smiling women wearing flowing, floral-patterned dresses that make them seem even more closely bonded. The textile patterns behind them are happy reminders of Matisse, as is the resolute flatness of the picture plane.
In addition to her portraiture, Pritchard also shows considerable promise in her landscapes. In such pictures as "Blue Pines" and "Hill of Pines" there is a pleasing balance achieved between the compositional firmness of the tree trunks and the fuzziness of the surrounding foliage.
An exhibited cityscape, "The Danube as a Viennese Canal," displays a fine understanding of tonal values in its rendering of a river curving through that city. The grayish palette transforms two small human figures into mere dark silhouettes in a misty scene. Pritchard's abstract softening of the representational world remains true to both what the eye sees and the heart feels.
"Discovering Sheila Pritchard" remains at the Life of Maryland B Gallery, at 901 N. Howard St., through Jan. 10. Call 539-7900.