Looking At Social Issues Without Getting Ugly

February 03, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

One would expect "Environmental Terror" at University of Maryland Baltimore County's fine arts gallery to be thought-provoking, given that it's about pressing social issues, that it's curated by the gallery's imaginative director, David Yager, and that it has works by important artists including Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Robert Morris.

But there are certain things about this exceptional exhibit that one might not expect.

First, it's by and large composed of traditional art -- paintings, photo graphs, prints, drawings -- meant to be hung on walls. There are some three-dimensional works, but no installations, no videos, no computers, and nothing that screams at you. The point here is not to put down installations, etc., but that it's refreshing to be reminded that a painting or a drawing can grapple with issues just as effectively as more recently developed forms.

Hollis Sigler's "And Her Anger Rose Up Like a Storm" is a modest-sized picture of a room with a storm going on in it -- storm clouds, lightning. By itself, and especially in the context of Sigler's other works here, it's evident that she is dealing with women's issues; but this work is broader than that -- anyone who's ever been really angry over an injustice can identify with it.

Second, the show is handsome. Refreshing, too, to learn, or re-learn, that works of art don't have to be ugly, disgusting or offensive in order to engage our attention and even arouse our emotions about issues. Again, nothing against the ugly and offensive -- I much prefer them to the insipid; but they aren't the only way.

Maren Hassinger's "Gethsemane," a wall piece consisting of tree branches and wires, shows how we can be seduced into replacing the natural with the man-made: The wires look so much like the branches, and are just as pretty really -- looking at this, you can almost hear one of those perfectly logical-sounding arguments for destroying nature in the name of progress.

Third, the show as a whole defines environment in its broadest sense, the sense of the world we live in and the whole spectrum of its problems. Some works do deal with the environment in the usual sense -- Hassinger's, Robert Fichter's "Final Dust Bowl; After the Ozone Hole," Christy Rupp's "Acid Rain Brook Trout," Fred Wilson's "Progress, Agress, Regress."

Others deal with issues as far-ranging as women and the world (Sigler), this country's responsibility for death and destruction (Katherine Porter's "The Last Thirty Years"), the perverted uses of science and technology (Stuart Diamond's ironically titled "Thank Goodness for the Experts" and "Man's Progress at Problem Solving"), man as mass destroyer of man (Vito Acconci's "People Mask" and "End Mask").

In fact, this show is a success any way you look at it. We're fortunate to have a number of social issue shows on at the same time. This one may be a little out of the way for some. Make the effort -- you won't regret it.

The show runs through March 14 at UMBC, 5401 Wilkens Ave. Call 455-3188.

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