In Dean Morrissey's "The Sandman," a bearded old fellow takes off in a brightly painted half-airship half-sea-ship, rising from a land of castles and windmills. The picture is painted with great technical skill, and on a certain level it's fun. But is it serious art?
No. And that's one of the disturbing things about Maryland Art Place's current show, "Wonder & Enchantment: An Exhibition of Fantasy and Science Fiction."
To give the show its due, it contains top-of-the-line work in its field, I'm told by MAP executive director Jack Rasmussen, who first organized it for Rockville Arts Place outside of Washington; it draws on the holdings of Washington area collectors Jane and Howard Frank and Richard J. Kelly. I have no knowledge of this genre, and am sure Rasmussen is right when he says that the show's artists, including Frank Frazetta,Boris Vallejo and Michael Whelan, are among its best.
But they are not local, so for MAP, Rasmussen cut the national show down and added two other components: a show of fantasy and science fiction work by area artists (including some who are known for other work as well, such as Trace Miller, Andrea Burchette, William Duffy and Jim Opasik); and a show of comic book art, by leading artists of that genre with some local connection, such as Berni Wrightson (born in Baltimore).
Fine, the emphasis has been spread around; so let's leave the local-oriented shows as conceivably within the justifiable, and turn to the national show in the most visible gallery space, the one on the first floor.
The fact that the artists in this space are not regional and are established leaders in their field makes them doubly inappropriate for what is supposed to be an alternative space devoted to emerging area artists.
Perhaps that could be overlooked if this were an opportunity to see serious contemporary art. But it is scarcely that.
The work is, for instance, exploitative of both men and women, depicting them as sex objects, here and there scantily clad for titillation purposes; not porn, but definitely not classic figure studies: more like an updating of the luscious nude over the Victorian stag bar.
That's not noted as an objection to nudity, but simply as an indication of the basic problem with this stuff: there is no real aesthetic reason to show it, for what these leading artists in their field produce is pure, unmitigated kitsch.
It's popular, yes, and as long as it has wide appeal it will find a place; but not Maryland Art Place, please. Not with all the good, serious area artists out there begging for a place to show their work. MAP can define its mission any way it chooses, of course, but this show breaks with what I understood to be its mission.
The shows run through July 18 at Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St. Call (410) 962-8565.