Women's thoughts come into focus

Review: `Facing Herself' shows how female artists represent themselves and how race and other factors play a part.

March 14, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The most striking image in Facing Herself, a fine show of eight women photographers at Baltimore's Creative Alliance (formerly the Fells Point Creative Alliance), is a close-up portrait of a young woman wearing blackface makeup by Washington-area artist Heidi Fancher.

It's difficult to be certain of the race of the woman in the picture, though the head is framed by a pair of platinum blond curls that may or may not be a wig. The face wears an expression that is both vulnerable and defiant, as if to say, "Whaddaya think of me now?"

It turns out that Fancher is a black woman who has donned this stereotypical mask to discredit it. In this, she is similar to the artists in the current Baltimore Museum of Art show, Looking Forward/Looking Black, whose work often parodies racial stereotypes to debunk the ideas they represent.

Still, one can't tell from the photograph whether Fancher is black or white, so the picture implicitly poses a question: What if a white woman photographed herself this way? Would that also be a form of protest and feminist solidarity - or an act of ridicule? Simply by raising the issue, Fancher goes a long way toward achieving her aesthetic purpose.

Curator Jed Dodds has organized this small but ambitious exhibit around the theme of how women artists represent themselves and their experience, and how definitions of race, gender and social class are constructed in photographs. The show at the Highlandtown gallery also includes works by Laura Burns, Stephanie Hargreaves, Sherry Insley, Laura Culverwell, Nikki Johnson, Michele Miller and Paula Gately Tillman, whose touching diptych of herself and her aging parents is one highlight of a show marked by great sensitivity and intelligence.

The Creative Alliance is at 413 S. Conkling St. Hours are Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 410-276-1651.

World and awareness

For years, Ruth Pettus, whose quietly meditative paintings are on view at Resurgam Gallery this month, used figures of men in suits as a kind of leitmotif for exploring her own intensely emotional responses to the world.

In this show, the figures still are there, though no longer so obviously gendered. And the spaces they occupy, though resembling such familiar places as beaches and fields, really seem more representative of the landscapes of the mind and heart.

To simply describe these painting as abstractions is to evade the main issue - abstractions of what? Certainly not merely of men in suits on beaches and in fields. The figures are ambiguous; they are both there and not there, almost as if the viewer had to consciously will them into being.

It seems to me that what Pettus is after is the connectedness between the world and consciousness, the place where our perceptions, thoughts and feelings intersect with the spatial and temporal continuum we call "reality."

Painting's long retreat from the depiction of three-dimensional space parallels the modern scientific conception of the universe as a space-time continuum whose "reality" exists only in human consciousness.

This is an idea (derived from Einstein's relativity and quantum mechanics) that painters like Pettus seem to have grasped intuitively. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether the continuum actually "looks" like a Pettus painting, only that the painting invites us to an awareness of our own indispensable role as creators of the world in which we find ourselves.

This is a show of great subtlety and imagination, which Pettus carries off without ever losing the humility appropriate to an evocation of what remains the most profound mystery of our existence.

Resurgam Gallery is at 910 S. Charles St. Hours are Thursday through Saturday noon to 6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 410-962-0513.

Familiar scenes

Larry Scott is a self-taught black artist whose paintings, drawings and constructions are currently on view at Sassafras Gallery in Waverly.

Much of this work looks like so-called outsider art, though there is no evidence that Scott suffers from the kind of social isolation or mental instability that often is associated with that term. Instead, Scott's art seems naive and childlike, mostly because it probably is.

Though it appropriates the style and subject matter of much black folk art - jazz musicians, neighborhood scenes, women as objects of love and passion - it seems to merely skim the surface of the people and events it depicts.

I wish Scott had revealed more of himself and his own experience in these pictures, rather than remain content within what appears to be a comfort zone of familiar genre scenes. I detect an urgency in his use of color and line that suggests great emotion, but also the feeling that this artist hasn't yet found his true path.

Sassafras is at 3200 Barclay St. Hours are Friday 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m.-1 p.m., and by appointment. Call 410-366-6467.

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