Despite quality of Sherman's medium, message doesn't move

John Dorsey

September 30, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The alienation and anxiety of modern life constitute the theme of Steve Sherman's works currently at Towson State, and it is a theme we understand from looking at his paintings even if we aren't quite made to feel it.

In a typical painting, Sherman places his figures (usually solitary but sometimes more than one) either in some relation to the sea -- floating, wading in, submerged -- or up in the sky in a self-propelled flying machine. In either case, the figure is in a somewhat alien milieu, or at any rate not on terra firma; the swimmers are quite literally "at sea," and their condition stands as a metaphor for the existentialism of the human condition in the 20th century.

In his oils, sometimes with graphite, Sherman is adept at depicting the colors of water -- green, gray, white, clear -- as well as communicating its liquidness. He's good, too, at catching the distortions of the human body when seen through water, and his clouds are both colorful and dramatic.

He's fine, then, at the technical aspects of his art, and one grasps what his work is about. The faces, when they are close enough for us to see, register some anxiety or apprehension. Nevertheless, the paintings as a whole lack emotional resonance.

The most frequent image here is of a figure submerged in water up to its chin, with the top of the head cut off by the top of the painting. It's probably the most effective of Sherman's images, because it looks as if the swimmer has nowhere to go -- something is bearing down from above, leaving only a tiny space in which to breathe.

This image appears about 10 times throughout the show, in different media and colors, in different sizes on different supports -- oil on canvas, primarily green; oil on wood in grays and whites, brown chalk on paper, etc. Looking at them, one has the sense that they were done, not to reflect a series of emotions or to build a crescendo of impact, but execute the image in different media, sizes, colors, etc.

It is useless, of course, to try to guess the artist's motivations. But it is possible to say that, skillful as Sherman's paintings are, and clear as their meaning is, we nevertheless understand it because we know it's there, not because the artist hits us where it hurts.

Sherman paintings

Where: Holtzman Gallery, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives, Towson State Univerity.

When: Tuesdays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Oct. 10.

Call: (410) 830-2808.

Details: Also at Towson State: "Peripheral Visions," pastels by Valetta at the University Union Gallery through Oct. 24, hours same as Holtzman; and paintings by Chinese artist Chu Ko at the Asian Arts Center's Roberts Gallery, also in the Fine Arts Center, through Oct. 23, hours Mondays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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