Painter Peggy Cyphers hampered by hyperbole Catalog's bold claims make Towson State exhibit sound like the Second Coming, not just a second show.

March 05, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

1/8 TC Peggy Cyphers, a native of Baltimore and 1977 graduate of Towson State University, has gone on to a career as a painter based in New York. Two of her recent shows have been accompanied by catalogs with essays, and the second of them -- which contains works of the 1980s and 1990s -- is now at Towson on a tour that's taking it from New York to Baltimore to Copenhagen.

That's an achievement many artists would envy. And the current show's catalog essay makes bold claims for Cyphers' work: It is related to many things, from early Italian painting and fossils to surrealism, film theory and Paleolithic cave paintings in Sri Lanka, and it's expressive of evolution, time and the humanist tradition.

Sorry, but this writer must dissent. Cyphers can paint competently, but her work is pretentious and nowhere near as meaningful as it would like to be.

The earlier works here (with the exception of a pleasant 1976 watercolor from her student days at Towson) date from the mid-1980s. Works such as "Annunciation" (1984) and "Sri Lanka" (1985) involve art deco-ish motifs on sectioned paintings that apparently relate to Italian altarpieces and are executed on various materials including wood, mylar and asphalt. She used such materials, a wall text tells us, "to create a physically intense deconstruction of surface unity." It's a trivial device, and these pictures strain for a maturity they don't achieve.

Subsequently there was a series called "Biological Impressionism," which Cyphers has called her "end of nature" paintings. There is one work from the series here, "Biological Impressionism #6" (1988), painted on aluminum (above) and wood (below). It may be intended as an ecological statement; it's much too vague to come across as such.

In the late 1980s, Cyphers turned to a series called "Lexicons of Paradise," inspired by interest in "Darwinian evolutionary theory, ecology and feminism." These works feature a film of paint over ** collaged images of birds, women, etc. There are faint echoes of Warhol here, but it all seems effortful and tired.

More recently, Cyphers has produced a series of paintings, including "Lamentation" (1994- 1995), in which the paint was mixed with sand and allowed to flow across the canvas placed on the floor.

These do achieve a sense of inner light, but their visual language is at best decorative; it falls far short of the "intense emotional energy" claimed for it.

In part, Cyphers has been sabotaged by the build-up.

When the claims made for an artist are as extravagant as those lavished on Cyphers, it would be difficult for anyone to live up to them, and they produce a natural skepticism on the part of the viewer.

They may also have induced the artist to think that her work is as momentous as it is made out to be. There is pose and affectation in these works, but little of true inner vision revealed on canvas. Cyphers is not without skills; if she could get closer to herself, they might be used to better effect.

Pub Date:

Peggy Cyphers

Where: Holtzman Gallery, Fine Arts Building, Towson State University

When: Noon to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, through March 13

Call: (410) 830-2787

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