Jody Mussoff's at a disadvantage in her current show at Maryland Art Place, because there couldn't be much more of a contrast between two shows than between her "Mostly Women" drawings on the second floor and Raoul Middleman's narrative paintings on the first.
Middleman's huge, baroque paintings are filled with figures and deal with epic, sweeping themes such as the fall of man and the death of civilization. Mussoff's moderately sized, colored-pencil drawings are far quieter, more specific and narrow in focus. They deal with psychological and sometimes social questions.
Maybe that's why, after inevitably seeing Middleman's paintings first, one is likely to find Mussoff's drawings initially disappointing upon stepping off the elevator on the second floor. They seem like wallflowers that just sit there and refuse to assert themselves.
But if that's your first reaction, as it was mine, don't get right back on the elevator and go downstairs. Give these unassuming drawings a little time, and you'll find they have something worthwhile to offer.
Given a chronological installation going back to 1979, they begin with a few tentative works from the first two or three years. By the early 1980s, the work was considerably stronger, the messages coming through more clearly.
The best are those that inspire multiple interpretations. The figure playing in "Hobby Horse" has a little girl's body but a more mature face than that. The drawing can refer to the child in all of us, or the longing to return to childhood or to innocence. It can also have sexual overtones, and even a suggestion of the abuse of children by those who supposedly "love" them.
In "Bride I (Bouquet)," the bouquet goes up in flames, or perhaps the flowers metamorphose into flames (it's not exactly a picture of burning flowers). Are the flowers of innocence being transformed here by the flames of love? Or is marriage, theoretically the ideal way to pass through life, actually something that burns you up, destroys your individuality?
In "Pencils," a woman holds a globe that sprouts pencils. At the show's opening, Mussoff said that she sees the pencils as missiles, making the work a comment on our warlike nature. The artist's interpretation is valid -- it can't be otherwise -- but that doesn't preclude other interpretations. Can't we see this as the world offering the artist the means of creativity?
After a while, the fact that the women in most of these 29 drawings look pretty much alike leads to a certain monotony. But Mussoff has something to say, and for the most part she says it with a degree of understated humor that keeps the message from becoming heavy-handed.
What: "Jody Mussoff: Mostly Women"
Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 28
$ Call: (410) 962-8565