Oyekan vessels add luster to ceramics


February 15, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

If Lawson Oyekan's marvelous ceramic sculptures at Maryland Institute College of Art are any indication of what the rest of the six-week Tour de Clay festival will look like, it's going to be terrific.

The festival, which officially opens Saturday, is coming to town to accompany the National Council of Education for the Ceramic Arts annual convention, which is being held in Baltimore this year.

During the festival, more than 1,000 artists will exhibit their works in about 160 shows; the one at MICA is among the first to open. It presents several series of the artist's works from the early 1990s to the present.

Oyekan, who was born in London in 1961, then raised in his parent's native Nigeria, makes vessel-like forms in a variety of shapes and sizes that refer to the body and to nature as containers of air, light and life.

Many of the pieces have the general shape of vases or bowls whose sides have been pierced to allow light and air to stream through them. Oyekan builds up each piece from hundreds of wet clay tiles that he models and bends into place before firing the piece in a kiln.

In Oyekan's recent works, completed last year when he was a resident artist at MICA, people from the surrounding community were invited to collaborate with the artist by shaping and coloring the individual tiles that go into each finished piece.

These works take ceramic art to new levels of aesthetic and conceptual sophistication. They are, quite simply, stunning, and the installation design by students in George Ciscle's exhibition preparation course at MICA is superb.

Lawson Oyekan and the Spirit of Nature runs through March 3 in MICA's Decker Gallery, 3100 Mount Royal Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 410-225-2300 or visit the Web site www.mica.edu.

It runs in the family

I. Henry Phillips Sr. was for many years a pioneering photojournalist for the Baltimore-based Afro-American newspaper, and his son, Irving H. Phillips Jr., and grandson, I.H. Web Phillips III, have made distinguished careers in photography.

Now the art of three generations of Phillips photographers is on view in a lovely, unabashedly sentimental show at Resurgam Gallery. The two dozen or so works on display span a 60- year period in Baltimore's history, from the 1940s to the present.

Phillips Sr. worked during an era when black newspapers like The Afro were about the only publications interested in printing pictures of African-Americans in a positive light.

The photographs he took mostly record the high points in the life of his community - the Easter parade or visits from celebrities like singer Ella Fitzgerald - as well as simple moments from everyday life that speak to the essential humanity of the city's black residents.

Phillips Sr. used a large-format press camera that produced graphically detailed images that emphasized his expansive, bold compositions. His pictures of Baltimore landmarks or of commonplace events like a teenage girl talking animatedly on the telephone revealed an artist who felt in his heart what he saw with his eye.

His son Irving H. Phillips Jr. brought a similar empathy to his work for The Sun, where he worked as a photojournalist from 1969 to 1993. During those 23 years, Phillips Jr. produced many memorable images of Baltimore, which was then undergoing tumultuous social and economic change.

Photographer I.H. Web Phillips has carried on in the tradition of his father and grandfather, producing wise and sympathetic pictures about the community he grew up in.

This is a show that recalls difficult times in the city's past - and present. The Phillips family photographers have made documenting that experience a vocation and a calling that has stood the test of time.

Images in Black and White: Three Generations of Photographers runs through Feb. 27. The gallery is at 910 S. Charles St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Call 410- 962-0513.

A viewing opportunity

Last week's opening reception for Towson University's delightful exhibition of African-American artworks from the collection of Otis and Harryette Robertson was chock-a-block with surprises. This is the first time the Robertson collection has been exhibited publicly, so the show was an opportunity to view many rarely seen works.

Among them was a wonderfully done small-scale painting on paper by Washington-based artist Alma Thomas, who died in 1978. Thomas taught art for 40 years in the Washington public school system; upon retirement she took up her own work again and developed a colorful abstract style that was all her own.

The Baltimore Museum of Art also has a small painting by Thomas, but most exhibitions focus on her larger, mural-scale works, so running across this little gem was a distinct pleasure.

Another artist not seen as often as he deserves is Herbert Gentry, a pioneering abstract expressionist who left New York in 1947, just before the movement took off, because he couldn't abide the entrenched discrimination of American society.

Gentry, who died in 2003, worked for a while in France, then settled in Sweden, where he produced all his signature compositions that blend surrealism and recurrent motifs of heads and faces.

There are also late prints by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, drawings by Barbara Chase-Riboud and contemporary artworks by Alison Saar, Louis Delsarte, Charles Burwell and many others whose names deserve to be far better known than they are.

Perhaps this intriguing show, ably organized by guest curator A.M. Weaver, will help spur a reassessment of modern American art that includes the significant contributions of African-American artists.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 26 at the University Union Art Gallery on the campus of Towson University. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 410-704-2641.

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