Big shows, smaller successes

Art

December 29, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In 1996, as in any year, Baltimore had its share of thought-provoking art shows. But looking back on the year, one can also say that some of our institutions' biggest offerings were less than total successes. Much less, in some cases.

The Baltimore Museum of Art's first big exhibit of the year featured Dale Chihuly's glass art, immensely enjoyable but not deep. That was followed by the landscapes of Alex Katz, whose work, though much praised, has too much to do with artifice and decoration. Then, while the great paintings of the Cone Collection are currently touring Japan, the museum brought in a show of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth (through Feb. 16), a vastly popular American artist whose works are, at bottom, old-fashioned, sentimental and manipulative. With the notable exception of its current show on modernism, the museum's more modest shows were more rewarding than its biggies this year.

The Baltimore City Life Museums opened its Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center in April, a fine building with an inaugural group of exhibitions (ongoing) that don't live up to it. They include a lot of bits and pieces of city life, intended to leave the impression that they add up to an in-depth look at the city. But they really don't -- they offer a skimming-the-surface approach that works to promote rather than to really study the city.

Visions of motion

The American Visionary Art Museum, which debuted in late 1995, opened its second exhibit, "Wind in My Hair" in October (through April 21). Embracing such themes as wind, motion and escape, it takes a very broad approach to visionary or outsider art that mixes the entertaining, the gimmicky and even the kitschy with more serious works.

In April, the Contemporary gave us "Ignisfatuus" by Paul Etienne Lincoln, a complex, difficult, esoteric project that required one to absorb a prodigious amount of explanation with precious little reward for it. Then in October the Contemporary presented "Aboard the Cyberclipper" (through Jan. 10), a project produced on the Internet that deals with the important subject of the vast and ever-expanding sea of electronic communication. It's also, frankly, boring. As other Contemporary projects have eminently shown, it's possible to be both intellectually rigorous and more accessible than this.

So much for the less than ideal. There was also a good helping of the positive to accentuate, including:

Two triumphs

At the Walters Art Gallery, May brought "Tiepolo Unveiled: the Restoration of a Masterpiece." When the roof leaked on a huge Tiepolo painting several years ago, the resulting conservation effort removed generations of bad previous restoration, which had covered an amazing 80 percent of Tiepolo's original painting, and revealed one of the painter's early masterpieces. It even got a new name, "Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva."

In November, the Walters opened the current "Russian Enamels: Kievan Rus to Faberge" (through Feb. 23), the first show outside of Russia to explore the entire history of Russian enamels from the 12th to the 20th century. It brings together 120 works from three area collections (including the Walters') to demonstrate that Faberge was only the final chapter of a long and distinguished history of the enamel art in Russia. A distinguished show, too.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, the current big show, "The Face of America" (closes today), is a sprawling and somewhat confusing exhibit dedicated to showing how modernism developed in America from 1910 to 1950. It's difficult to look at and difficult to understand, thanks largely to the great complexity of the period. But stick with it, proceed slowly, look and think hard, and lots of things will come clear. It's definitely worth the effort.

The BMA year brought several smaller shows that were choice: "Landmarks in Print Collecting" (through Jan. 5) is as close to perfect as they get -- almost 100 exquisite works from the British Museum, covering five centuries and including many of the foremost artists of their times, from Durer and Rembrandt to Manet and Munch. Earlier in the year, "The Photographs of Dorothea Lange" brought the works of an artist who married great documentary subject matter to a great aesthetic. The current retrospective of the works of abstract painter John McLaughlin (through Jan. 19) offers food for contemplation, but with fewer than two dozen works it's too small.

At the galleries, the recent paintings of Eugene Leake (at Grimaldis in October) revealed an artist who grows ever deeper and more contemplative. The works of British painter Jennifer McRae (at Gomez through Jan. 4) combine fine craftsmanship, imagery that reflects early Renaissance models, and a soupcon of surrealism. "Houston/Baltimore: A Collaboration between Joe Mancuso and James von Minor" (at School 33 through Jan. 10) reveals two artists who think virtually as one and together give us one of the best shows of the year.

Let us never forget the most important event of 1996: The Lucas Collection of about 20,000 works of 19th-century art, formerly owned by the Maryland Institute, College of Art and on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery for 60 years, was purchased by the BMA and the Walters, assuring that it will stay permanently in Baltimore.

And speaking of permanent collections, the Walters Art Gallery also put on view for the first time last summer another recent purchase: 17 Ethiopian religious objects dating from the 13th to the 18th century, enhancing the institution's -- and the community's -- holdings in both African and Christian art.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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