The biggest surprise in the Howard County Center for the Arts' show "Frame of Reference: Race, Sex and Politics" is the immense cynicism of Sherwin Mark's installation "Silent Power."
That's not a condemnation, only an observation. Mark, who works in multimedia, can always be counted on to challenge the viewer.
The work consists of a bed with white sheets on which images are projected from above, and a dressing table with a screen where the mirror would be. Verbal descriptions of situations are projected onto the screen, and the viewer reads each of these and makes some kind of choice at the end by pushing either button A or B. Then the work goes on to the next situation.
For example (not quoted verbatim): A man owns a factory and beats his workers, but is successful. The workers are kind to the man's son. When the man's son grows up and takes over the factory, should he (A) beat the workers and succeed or (B) be kind to the workers and go bankrupt?
The cynicism behind the question should be obvious, but that's nothing compared with the work as a whole. For whatever you pick in answer to each question, the results are the same. Whether you pick all A's (which I did the first time around) or all B's (the second time around) the sequence of situations does not change. You think you're making a difference, but you're not.
This work, which in effect says that nothing we are or do in life matters, amounts to a searing indictment of activism -- and of principles -- which comes as a shock from Mark. It may, however, be intended to shock the viewer out of his complacency by provoking a reaction. It does.
Mark is one of four artists in the show. Chevelle Makeba Moore's dynamic, brightly colored paintings probe male-female relationships, specifically women's fears of men. "Play Like You're Asleep" deals with fear of rape. "We're Alone Now" deals with child abuse, and maybe incest. The intensity of Moore's colors adds to the effectiveness of her paintings.
Francisco Alvarado-Juarez is a Honduran-American painter who has earned much praise and several awards. His three paintings in the show, including "Mythological Creatures" and "Hidden Force," deal in surreal ways with issues that are more psychologically ambiguous than the other artists. As a result, though the works are strong, they look a little out of place.
Mary Ann Crowe's installation "Flowers for Soweto" and wall piece "Ugly Subject #001" deal with the situation in South Africa and discrimination here. Crowe has a tendency to cram too much into her works, so that they become visually confusing even if their messages are clear. This installation is less cluttered, and that's an advance.
Applause to the Howard County Arts Council for having a show that makes you think.
The show runs through April 11 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Call (410) 313-2787.