Artists or photographers? In MAP exhibit, they're both

ART

12 illuminate `Human Conditions' in works from traditional to surreal

June 07, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Since the 1970s, critics have had to make a distinction between "photographers who are artists" and "artists who use photography."

The difference has to do with the way artists who work with camera images regard the history and conventions of art photography.

I think of "photographers who are artists" as people skilled in the traditional techniques and methods of the medium.

A list of their names would include the usual suspects in any discussion of "great photographers" - Eugene Atget and Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon, to name just a few.

In the other category are people who think of themselves as artists in terms of the traditional fine arts media such as painting and sculpture, yet also incorporate camera imagery into their work.

A highly abbreviated list of these practitioners might start with 1930s modernists like Man Ray and go through Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman to conceptualists like Richard Prince and Adrian Piper.

Obviously both lists could be extended, with many artists straddling the line. The point is, today there's an incredible diversity of approaches to photography, greater no doubt than at any previous time in the medium's history. And unlike in earlier periods, there's no particular aesthetic orthodoxy to which photography - or any of the fine arts, for that matter - must conform to be taken seriously.

The enormous latitude for serious work is probably the most important lesson to be taken from Human Conditions, the exemplary group exhibition of 12 contemporary artist-cum-photographers at Maryland Art Place this month.

The works in the show range from traditional (that is to say, early modernist style) "straight" photography to surreal collage, "new topographics" (a la the groundbreaking, similarly titled 1970s Museum of Modern Art show of banal industrial landscapes) to postmodern staged scenarios and minimalist-conceptual imagery appropriated from popular culture.

I was particularly intrigued by Emily Denlinger's vivid constructed images, which combine the look of a carnival puppet theater and a gilded cut-paper collage.

Denlinger's dreamlike figures - derived from magazine illustrations, ads and the like - act out surreal dramas based on unspecified incidents in the photographer's life against a glittery three-dimensional background that frames them as if on a theater stage.

Mercifully, however, one doesn't need to be a psychoanalyst or the artist's mother to appreciate these flipped-out visual fictions, which have a peculiar logic of their own that somehow the heart readily grasps.

I also was impressed by Sarah Hobbs' beautiful, large-scale color interiors and Kelly Maron's oversized trompe l'oeil contact sheet, with its rows of nearly identical passport-picture-like portraits that add up to a remarkably subtle and sophisticated meditation on the nature of personal identity.

The show also includes works by Jason Hughes, Wes Kline, John Morris, Dan Schlapbach, Jacqueline Schlossman, Arthur Soontornsaratool, Allison Turrell, Edward Winter and Ed Worteck.

The show runs through Aug. 20. The gallery is at 8 Market Place, Suite 100. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-962-8565 or visit www.mdartplace.org.

Folk artist

Larry Scott's large and varied exhibition at Sub-Basement Artist Studios suggests that this self-taught Baltimore folk artist has made considerable progress over the four-year span represented by the show.

In Scott's most recent group of works, a series of drawings and paintings of single female figures, his African-American subjects are depicted head-on, as if walking directly toward the viewer.

These figures have the charming innocence of an Ellis Wilson painting. (Wilson, who died in 1977, became one of the most widely viewed African-American artists in history when his 1953 painting Haitian Funeral Procession was selected to help decorate the set of the Huxtable family residence in the popular sitcom The Cosby Show.)

Scott's graceful, lanky women could almost be fashion models, and they are just different enough from Wilson's to retain their status as original creations. Some of the drawings, in particular, have a high-spirited sense of style that is all but irresistible.

But not all of Scott's series work as well as these. Abstract landscapes executed at roughly the same time clearly lack the confidence and flourish of the woman series, and Scott's installation of 200 drawings seems embarrassingly uneven, as if the artist couldn't distinguish at all between his best work and the merely ho-hum.

Sub-Basement's cavernous exhibition space can be both blessing and curse for artists. On the one hand, there's more than ample room for even the grandest of statements; on the other hand, you've either got to have a few very large pieces or scores of smaller ones to fill the venue.

My feeling is that Scott is undoubtedly talented but is still finding his way and that the unevenness of this show reflects his groping for a mature style - always a difficult achievement. One can only hope that he finds one soon, and then sticks to it wherever it may lead.

The show runs through June 30. Sub-Basement Artist Studios is in The Atrium at Market Center, 118 N. Howard St. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and by appointment. Call 410-659-6950.

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