Show nurtures some talents better than others

Art Review

May 25, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

The annual critic's residency program at Maryland Art Place, now in its 20th year, may be unique in the nation as a venue for nurturing the talents of regional artists and of aspiring writers who want to pursue careers as art critics.

Each year MAP invites an established critic, often from outside the region, to curate a show of works by local artists and to mentor two or three promising young writers in the fine points of critical interpretation.

The writers, who, like the artists, are chosen on the basis of work samples submitted to the gallery, accompany the critic on tours of the artists' studios, help select works for the show and write short, interpretive essays for the catalog that MAP publishes to document the exhibition. In recent years, MAP has invited such distinguished art professionals as Amei Wallach, Carter Ratcliff and Franklin Sirmans to lead the program.

Lilly Wei, a New York-based independent curator and writer, was the resident critic for this year's exhibition, Mapping the Alternative, which presents the work of nine regional artists and catalog essays penned by three area writers, Wei and MAP program director Lisa Lewenz. As have previous shows, the current exhibition attests to the extraordinary vitality of Baltimore's art scene and its wealth of youthful talent.

One standout work in this year's show, for example, is a surpassingly beautiful work of installation art by Lesley McTague titled Screened Gate, which immediately arrests one's eye upon entering the gallery. The piece is constructed out of dozens of sheets of thin balsa wood intricately carved to resemble the flowing arabesques of Islamic decorative art or the twining floral patterns of embroidered lace.

McTague's Gate takes the form of an architectural arch such as might be found at the entrance to a small private garden. Normally, such structures would be fashioned from wrought iron or some similarly durable material. McTague's decision to painstakingly hand-carve the design in delicate balsa wood emphasizes both the extremely fragile, ephemeral nature of the work and the obsessively labor-intensive process required to produce it.

Zachary Thornton's strikingly realistic paintings are inspired by memories of people from his past, who recall the uneasy urban denizens of Edward Hopper's paintings. His images have a startlingly lifelike quality that manages not only to convey the appearance of his subjects but also to suggest something of their psychological makeup.

One of the most touching works is Jessie Lehson's autobiographical installation consisting of several large boxes of vibrantly colored soil samples set into a low, raised platform.

Lehson suffers from an iron-deficiency disorder, a disease that contrasts poignantly with the natural abundance of the metal found in the samples of ordinary dirt her friends collect for her. The installation is therefore an oblique reference to her own body's unusual vulnerability and, possibly, to her strategies for coping with it. The artist hints at such an interpretation, at least, by carefully labeling all the samples in terms of their iron content, place of origin and date of collection.

The show also features a stunning, mural-scale abstract drawing by Washington-based painter Maggie Michael from her post-Sept. 11 series depicting violent explosions. Other works include collages by Elizabeth Crisman and Andrew Cook, an installation by Julia Kim Smith and paintings and drawings by Timothy App and Corey Wagner.

The critic's residency program at MAP has been an enormous boon to emerging artists from the region, who get a chance to have their work evaluated by recognized experts and to participate in exhibitions that may lead to wider notice.

If there's anything about the program that could be improved, it's probably the component that mentors young writers, whose efforts sometimes seem less polished and assured than those of the visual artists.

Criticism is, first of all, a literary vocation; to do it well, one needs a clear, graceful prose style and skill in logical exposition as well as a passion for the visual arts. Here is where input from a seasoned text editor, who can help less-experienced writers develop their ideas and correct common errors of style and usage, clearly would benefit both the artists under discussion and the aspiring critics who hope to bring them to the attention of a wider audience.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

Mapping the Alternative runs through June 24 at Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place, Suite 100. Call 410-962-8565.

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