3 painters provide powerful perspectives

Artscape exhibit illustrates the strength of expression


July 24, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Three Strong Painters, the title of Artscape's exhibition at the Maryland Institute's Meyerhoff Gallery, might seem a little presumptuous were it not for the fact that the artists showcased - Miriam Cabessa, Lisa Stefanelli and Amanda Church - more than live up to the show's billing.

Cabessa creates large, complex forms out of oil paint on panel that, on first glance, at least, seem to resemble the skeletal structures of some exotic reptilian, crustacean or insect species.

On closer inspection, however, the striking biomorphic structures of her paintings turn out not to be representational at all.

Instead, as curator John Yau points out in the text that accompanies the show, the images are the result of Cabessa's pressing her hands and fingers into the dark, painted ground of the work while it is still wet, then drawing them across the surface in a series of choreographed movements that leave their imprint as a series of ghostly, symmetrical forms.

Cabessa's unusual images are thus both a precise record of the artist's gestural movements - the visual residue of a physical performance - and a highly sophisticated form of finger painting, a form usually associated with children's first introduction to artistic creation.

Yau compares Cabessa's methods to those of Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, whose revolutionary technique of dripping and splattering paint across the canvas largely dispensed with traditional palettes and brushes.

"By connecting Pollock, who some people believe initiated the demise of painting, with finger painting, our earliest painting activity, Cabessa subverts the notion that history is linear," Yau suggests. "Art is generated out of beginnings and endings and everything in between."

In the work of Stefanelli, the connection with Pollock is less one of technique than of visceral effect. Stefanelli's paintings resemble graceful arabesques that soar and dive across the surface of her canvases like vines on a trellis. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stefanelli spent years as a competitive figure skater before taking up painting; her long, curving lines and complex networks of interwoven traceries suggest a state of sustained, exhilarating movement.

"Stefanelli's paintings can be read as inscriptions, as both paint and a highly elaborated picture of paint's liquidity," Yau writes. "The pictures don't seem to have been drawn, but cut into the surface. By limiting herself to a tonal palette of reds and blues, which she juxtaposes against a monochromatic ground, Stefanelli restates the painting plane as a kind of skin which remembers, a body which records the gestures of another body. In this regard, her paintings are highly erotic."

Church's paintings also relate to images of the body, though her highly simplified forms seem descriptive in an almost cartoonish way. Yau associates her blob-like imagery with our un- nameable secret dreams, fears and desires, aspects of the personality that have been repressed to the point where they exist only in an animal-like subconscious state. Yet these pictures also have a certain weird eloquence that seems to belie their bland pastel colors and primitive drawing.

Yau suggests that the strength of all three artists lies in their refusal to idealize the past as it has come down to us in the tradition of Western painting, while at the same time resolutely pushing the envelope of possible meanings that can be embodied in paint.

This is an unusually intelligent and thought-provoking show, and well worth a visit during this weekend's festive celebration.

Three Strong Painters continues at the Meyerhoff Gallery in the Fox Building, 1300 Mount Royal Ave., through Aug. 4.

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