Evergreen House inspires its own exhibit

Artists draw ideas from objects in the home, lives of its former owners


October 31, 2004|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to the Sun

Arts patron Alice Warder Garrett and her husband, John, were so devoted to all things artistic that their North Baltimore estate, Evergreen House, became an early-20th-century mecca for painters, musicians and other people who knew a good party when they saw one. The late John and Alice Garrett doubtless are having a swell time at some heavenly black-tie event, and their book- and-art-filled home is now a Johns Hopkins University-administered house museum.

Various exhibits and events ensure that the cultural calendar remains full at Evergreen House, and artists, in particular, still find it a welcoming place. The current exhibit, House Guests, features three recent participants in its annual artists-in-residence program. Micki Watanabe, Patrick Burns and Denise Tassin were inspired by this highly civilized setting and made artworks that reference it with varying degrees of directness. Even though some of the results are less than inspired, it's interesting to see what catches their attention in a mansion full of eye-catching treasures.

The most literal-minded of the trio also happens to come up with the most consistently impressive art. Watanabe's wood, leather and paper, Evergreen Rare Book, is characteristic of her work. Inspired by the superb library of rare books, she has made what resembles an oversized book that, when opened, reveals a hollowed-out interior that she treats as a miniature copy of the library room. It's a charming dollhouse-like construction complete with shelves, windows and a meticulously detailed marquetry floor. And it's easy to make comparisons between this model and the real thing, because Evergreen Rare Books is installed in the library itself.

Well crafted, detailed

This book-as-object is part of a series called Object of Literature that Watanabe has installed elsewhere in the main house and its adjacent gallery. Most of her other exceptionally well-crafted pieces pay tribute to the places where books are kept, including the Library of Congress in Washington, the Boston Public Library, the British Museum Library in London, and even Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library's Canton branch. There are architectural details, floor plans and other evocations of those libraries in mostly wood constructions that resemble the so-called campaign furniture that allowed a trip into the wilderness equipped with truly fine, lightweight fold-out furniture.

Another artist in this show also had bookish inspiration. Burns, whose mixed medium drawings are displayed in the gallery, admired rare books from the 17th through 19th centuries that have illustrations feeding into his longtime interest in insects and other things. The gallery installation includes several natural-history books opened to pages with beautifully detailed prints depicting insects, with Burns' somewhat-related Evergreen Drawings hanging nearby, in what amounts to a happy field trip for any visiting entomologists.

Burns' working method involves making graphite drawings of bugs and botanical subjects, but then accompanying, and sometimes partly concealing, these mostly black-and-gray renderings with more colorfully hued geometric abstractions. He also often applies enough washes and varnishes to make the bugs themselves seem like ghosted images rather than crisply rendered textbook illustrations. The slight variations in subject and style from one drawing to the next aren't quite enough to sustain an extensive series (this one would benefit from editorial pruning). Also, seeing his drawings next to the illustrated bugs that inspired them prompts one to wish Burns at least occasionally experimented with more detailed anatomical depictions. Viewers also may be bugged that his balance between representation and abstraction often seems arbitrary. Perhaps his most problematic artistic decision was to make these drawings on sandpaper. Its nubby texture presumably was meant to emphasize the rough and even repulsive nature of, well, nature itself, but he generally doesn't seem to use the sandpaper to strategic advantage.

Paper, mixed media

The third artist, Tassin, calls her series Suppressed Desires Party in tribute to a 1930s costume party thrown by Sun editor Hamilton Owens and his wife at their home; the Garretts were among the costumed guests. Tassin's considerable artistic output includes mostly works on paper in the library, and mixed media installations located outdoors. As with Burns, a bit of editing would help.

Her best works on paper include Alice's Bathing Suit Juxtaposition, in which black-and-white photos of Alice Garrett posing in a bathing suit are placed next to Tassin's schematic depictions of the basuit. Documentary images are juxtaposed with a modern take on that subject matter.

Outdoors, Tassin has placed on the artificial lawn flowers, carnival shooting targets, abstract paintings, inflatable pool toys and other elements of pop culture that add up to a light-hearted tribute to Mrs. Garrett's festive spirit. These are temporary installations that will appear and mostly disappear during the run of the show. Tassin often makes thematic reference to such landscape features as the greenhouse and fountain that no longer grace this 19th-century mansion's grounds, so it's only fitting that some of her own installations could be gone with a strong wind.


What: House Guests

Where: Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St.

When: Noon- 3 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. Through Jan. 2

Cost: $6, $5 for senior citizens 65 and older, $3 for students

Information: 410-516-0341

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