Wrenching, colorful work by 2 artists

February 22, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

If you set out to put together two artists who are totally unalike, you probably couldn't do much better than to pick Sue Coe and Sam Gilliam, who share a show at the Maryland Institute right now.

Gilliam is a nationally known abstract painter noted for his work in color, and Coe is a totally committed socio-political artist whose mostly black-and-white drawings and prints take on such issues as censorship, animal treatment and the homeless.

Their works are being shown together as the second of four exhibits of artists in residence at the institute this year, and it's fun (if you can call looking at Coe fun) to see them in each other's company.

They occupy separate spaces in the Fox building's Meyerhoff gallery, so you're not looking at Coes and Gilliams at the same time, which might be jarring.

Instead, you can wander back and forth from Coe's wrenching polemics to Gilliam's dynamic and colorful world, and each acts as a foil for the other.

It would be nice to have more than four of Gilliam's paintings, but they offer a pretty good idea of what he's been doing lately. Combining paint with photo-montage and collage, Gilliam creates segmented, highly active works faintly reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's.

Instead of Rauschenberg's combinations of abstract paintings and actual objects (such as newspaper clippings), Gilliam's images are totally abstract. But strangely enough, they manage to suggest the world around us -- landscape, cityscape, the sky, the rushing sense of a speeding car and so on -- without showing them.

The two best of these works are the two largest, "Window Boogie Woogie" and "Using Yellow;" they're evocative and gently spirit-lifting, as if the artist is communicating that it's not such a bad old world after all.

Nothing could be much farther from this than Sue Coe's vision of a world with bigotry, violence and, above all, cruelty. There is nothing people aren't capable of in her world, and unfortunately her world is our world -- for all of her images come straight from her experience and her knowledge of current events.

In "Family Values," a woman struggling to protect five children gets stamped "Unfit Mother" by a big-brother-like hand. In "The Unspeakable Pursuing the Uneatable," a group of hunters take aim at helpless animals.

The most horrible image here is "Woman Tied to a Pole," on the atrocities of war. The tied-up woman is approached by a soldier who prepares to rape her before he kills her, while her child looks on. This isn't fantasy. It happens and we know it.

Many will respond most readily to Coe's "The Tail That Wagged the Dog," a series of prints in book form that deal with cruelty to dogs.

In it, Coe demonstrates her ability to achieve a variety of visual effects. The print of unwanted dogs being electrocuted is a crisp, hard-edged image, but the picture of a homeless woman with a dog in Central Park is much softer, eliciting more our pity than our anger.

'Coe and Gilliam'

Where: Meyerhoff Gallery, Fox Building, Maryland Institute, College of Art, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues

When: Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays noon to 4 p.m., through March 3

Call : (410) 225-2300

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