Quality matches quantity at Artscape '98 Roundup: A gallery- by-gallery glimpse of surprisingly good works.

July 17, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

The sheer size of this year's Artscape means the quality of the work on exhibit varies from brilliant to, well, less than brilliant.

It's hard to do justice to a show that brings together some 200 artists represented by 300 to 400 separate works in five different venues.

This year's Artscape is bigger than ever, but the general level of works by local and regional artists is surprisingly high.

That's not to say the five major indoor shows don't have their share of the quirky, the challenging, the indefensible and the embarrassingly enigmatic.

But in contrast to the ubiquitous and wildly uneven outdoor crafts displays that are still what most Artscape visitors think this weekend is about, there's amazingly little that can be described as really trashy. With few exceptions, the organizers of the show have managed to assemble a show that avoids the obviously amateurish, patently frivolous or just plain boring.

Decker Gallery

At the entrance to the Decker Gallery of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, in the old Mount Royal Station, visitors are greeted by John Ruppert's 8-foot-tall steel sculpture that manages to suggest both an egg and a womb.

The monumental scale of the piece, titled "Chamber," is contradicted by the structural transparency of the prison-grade chain link fence of which it is made. It allows the viewer to see both the inside and the outside of the work simultaneously.

Farther along, sculptors Luis A. Castro and Marcia Wolfson Ray each display pairs of works that also play on the tension between form and materials.

Castro's marble seesaw and limestone hospital stretcher possess an unexpected, almost gratuitous solidity, while Ray's tower of wire-mesh logs and her intricate stack of reeds and corn leaves suggest the tragic, transitory nature of humanity's projects.

Daniel Sullivan's mysteriously titled "(A Tenth of an Inch a Year: It Sounds Harmless, But It Isn't)" was utterly baffling, but it seemed to have something to do with glacial change and ultimate incompletion.

The piece looks like an old, rotting piece of plywood board leaned up against a pile of junk in somebody's basement. Obviously the artist had something more trenchant in mind, but what was it?

You might also check out Toni Vandergrift's enigmatic video installation, "Dissolution Sequence (Octagon)," which consists of half a dozen video images projected against the walls of a darkened room.

(A word of caution: Don't sit down on what appears to be the

circle of built-in benches inside the room. This reviewer tried and found it none too sturdy.)

Peter Walsh's video installation consists of four monitors displaying the excruciating boredom of cooking, cleaning and hanging around the house.

But at least Walsh's piece has the virtue of purposeful tedium, serving as an ironic comment not only on the soul-deadening repetitiveness of menial chores but also the stultifying sameness of life as it is depicted on the tube.

Fox Building

Up the street, on the first floor of the institute's Fox Building, there's a fascinating tribute to Baltimore's now-defunct Kromah Gallery, which between 1978 and 1984 was the city's most important showcase for black artists.

For those who appreciate figurative painting, don't miss Nathaniel K. Gibbs' "A Sense of Glory," whose subject is the black soldiers who fought during the Civil War. That picture alone is nearly worth the trip. Gibbs is also represented by a winsome portrait of a young African-American woman from the 1970s.

Also included in the Kromah tribute are the signature fabric constructions by Elizabeth Scott and her daughter, Joyce, Bill Joyner's sensitive portraits on paper and the late Robert O. Torrence's passionately over-the-top paeans to black womanhood.

The second floor of the Fox Building features a show titled "Advanced Notices," which purports to investigate what might be called the darker side of the future.

The standouts here are a couple of haunting, angst-ridden constructions by Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones and a brutally rendered image of a grieving woman by sculptor Janathel Shaw.

But for the most part, this room lacks the vitality of either the Decker or Kromah shows. It makes one want to scream, "Lighten up, for heaven's sake, things can't be that bad!" -- even if one knows perfectly well that they can be.

Pinkard Gallery

Next door to the Fox Building is a curious little show in the Pinkard Gallery of the Bunting Center. "Modern Mummeries" is really a kind of costume exhibit in which various artists explore issues of identity, gender and social labeling through the garments people wear.

Some of the pieces promise more than they deliver. For example, Catherine Pancake's film stills from a movie about a man wearing a suit made of Vienna sausages works better as an idea than as an artwork. The absurdity of his desire to wear food is oddly diminished by her obsession with documenting it.

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