Traditional mostly lost in exhibits

Review: The artists of Artscape seem a self-contemplative bunch who bring quality and diversity to the local scene. But they could use a few lessons in titles. Many artistic paths cross at Artscape

July 09, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

This year's Artscape, beginning today, can be viewed as a sort of microcosm of the art world at large.

Trends observed in New York and Venice trickle down to the local scene, where artists confidently pursue visions unconstrained by enforced conformity to any critical "mainstream."

Diversity is in, and even a little chaos is not particularly to be frowned upon. No one presumes to know precisely where art is going, but surely the only way to get there is to try.

FOR THE RECORD - (In last week's review of Artscape, two paintings in the Harlem Renaissance style were incorrectly identified. "Lady Singin' the Blues" and "Jammin' at the Playground" are by Gary A. Mullen.)

Many of the impulses that drive contemporary art are abundantly in evidence among the 77 artists participating in this year's juried exhibitions, which are scattered among six locations around the city.

I noted, for example, a penchant for works that explore artists' private, autobiographical issues -- though it sometimes felt like you had to be the artist's mother or a psychiatrist to understand what was going on.

There's also a pronounced trend toward forms other than traditional painting and sculpture -- installation, photography, collage and even more unconventional approaches that defy classification. Paintings probably make up the smallest proportion of works on view than any previous year.

One observes the gradual diminution of social and political agendas. I say this with absolutely no prejudice toward artists who have concerned themselves with issues such as feminism, AIDS awareness, etc. But -- can I be the first to say it? -- the '90s are over.

For those who like their art old-fashioned -- that is, framed and hung on a wall -- a good place to start is the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Bunting Center, where Glyndon artist Pamela Phillips' lovely works in acrylic and collage on paper are on view.

Figurative art was supposed to have made a comeback in the 1980s, but it's still a rare pleasure to see it done this well.

Like many of the artists represented by Gomez Gallery, Phillips combines classical and modernist styles. Her work has beautiful, breathtaking colors and an original, inventive use of line.

Joseph Kohl's untitled photographs in the same gallery point out the promise and challenge of contemporary photography.

His wonderful picture of a dreamy young couple dancing is, despite the familiarity of the subject, so keenly observed it recalls the innocent eye of a child.

On the other hand, a trio of nudes by the same artist was so labored and uninspired, I wondered why he bothered.

While I'm in complaint mode, I wanna denounce an increasingly irksome practice that threatens to become universal, that of artists, particularly in the United States, leaving their works untitled.

This is a throwback to certain intellectual pretensions of the modernist era one would think had had their day.

Engage me, enthrall me or bore me to tears, but for goodness sake, give us poor viewers a clue to what's going on in your brain. We're not mind-readers.

I wouldn't go on like this if I hadn't been genuinely disappointed by the lack of a title for Beverly Ress' eloquent, contemplative mixed-media installation at School 33 Art Center.

Now, of course, if it's eloquent, you'll ask, what need of a title?

Ress' installation is so simple, it's nearly indescribable. But I'll try, and perhaps you'll see:

A series of flat wooden boards with nature specimens pinned to them -- tree limbs, a dead bird, a bumblebee -- lie in a semicircle on the floor opposite two white walls joined at a 90-degree angle.

On the walls hang a series of exquisitely detailed watercolors that exactly reproduce the specimen boards facing them. That's it.

Now: One can enter the space defined by these objects or stand outside it; one can view the objects from near or far. From any vantage point, the installation remains a bounded space that, in some uncanny way, has been made to function almost exactly like a mirror -- or a memory.

This is a powerful, fascinating and disturbing work, not least because it is also a memento mori, a reminder of the transitory nature of all things.

I can't imagine having it in my house, but I know it surely deserves a name of its own.

Four African-American artists -- Schroeder Cherry, Armeta La Verne Gray, Carl Clark and Matthew Lawrence -- whose works are on display in the Decker Gallery at Mount Royal Station, seem almost too literal by contrast.

Cherry's whimsical, folkloric collages are actually carefully constructed paintings cut in the shape of the figures they represent, with beads, shells and other objects attached to the surface.

Gray and Clark are both photographers who document the life of Baltimore's black community.

Lawrence's paintings are a sort of postmodern take on the cubist-modernist style of the Harlem Renaissance. Their ironic titles -- "It's time for a Scooby Snack," "Please Don't Send Me to the Planet of the Apes" -- give them a playful (and sometimes painful) contemporary twist.

Postmodernism/conceptualism has been tough on black artists. It has made unfashionable the sort of nitty-gritty documentary work of artists like Gray and Clark.

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