Artists' works have unsettling elements Review: School 33 show pairs power and wit with an underlying sense of the ominous.

December 23, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Ruth Pettus' paintings of faceless men in indeterminate settings have been shown often in recent years. But they don't lose their force, as Pettus proves with four recent paintings on exhibit in School 33's current two-person show.

Pettus' men have always appeared ominous, with their featureless faces and dark clothes that suggest melodrama villains. They bristle with negative implications: They may stand for male dominance and sexism, for the male animal's potential for violence, for the difficulty of penetrating others' facades and establishing true communication, for faceless bureaucracies that run the world and don't give a damn about people.

This time around, certain new or heightened elements underpin Pettus' themes. Strips of loosely woven cloth, snippets of hair, globs of paint help to create roughly textured surfaces in keeping with the unpretty content of these works.

In three of them, the figures are set in vaguely defined landscapes that add to the viewer's unease. There are only bands of mottled color -- white, gray, brown -- that provide nothing to hold on to visually, such as a tree or body of water. The inhabitants of these territories seem at home in them, but the viewer finds them alien and unsettling.

In two of the pictures, Pettus adds a horse to the humans that were formerly her only figures. Its horizontality of mass suggests an opposite to the verticality of its male rider; in other words, it suggests a female being ridden. So the theme of male domination gains a new emphasis. Before, female subjection was only implied by Pettus' males; here it's shown, if in disguised form. Her art has always been quiet but intense, and if anything the intensity increases here.

Timothy Blum creates witty sculptures with pointed messages. Several months ago, at Maryland Art Place, he showed a life-size camel with a skin made of tobacco leaves. It cleverly made a point about man's appropriation of the natural world for destructive purposes.

Here, his "Cocksure" consists of a 9-foot-high wooden wishbone with a huge clothespin clamped to one of its ends. It brings to mind the monumental clothespin of pop artist Claes Oldenburg. But elevating everyday objects to the level of high art is not Blum's central concern. As its title suggests, the work deals in part with overconfidence. That clothespin isn't going to let go, or admit to error, no matter which way the wishbone breaks. And making the wishbone big enough to walk under gives the victimized turkey a frightening imaginary dimension that recalls the point of the camel. If the relative size of turkeys and humans were reversed, would they be gobbling us up this week?

Blum's biggest work takes on the dimensions of an installation. Called "Came to Mobile, Alabama," it consists of a full-size brass bed with a huge lead quill pen propped on it, and a "bedspread" painted to look like a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper. Near the bottom of the bed, an inkwell turned on its side spills out red ants that scurry to the bed carrying Z's with them. Maybe this piece means that writing or possibly all the arts are asleep in America (surely not just in Mobile). The piece also brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe's weird imagination. It's an intriguing combination of the funny and the threatening.

At School 33

What: Ruth Pettus, Timothy Blum

Where: 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; through Jan. 17

Call: 410-396-4641

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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