Show illustrates an almost single-minded pluralism

CRITIC'S CORNER//ART

Exhibit brings home an art world theme

Art column

June 21, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

This year's Big Show at the Creative Alliance reflects the community-based art group's wide-ranging grass-roots appeal locally, as well as the prevailing mood in the larger art world outside Baltimore.

There are about 175 works in the show in all styles and media, and if there's anything like the much-ballyhooed "Baltimore style" of art-making, this should be the place to find it.

What one in fact finds in The Big Show, however, is something very much like the determined pluralism to be found virtually everywhere else in the art world these days.

If there is such a thing as a so-called Baltimore style -- I once tried to sum it up as "quirky, funky and cheerfully uncon- strained by conventional notions of good taste" -- it's certainly on view here, but then again, so is everything else.

Pluralism -- the notion that art can look like anything and that anyone can be an artist -- defines the cultural climate of our time, and it's not unique to Baltimore, though I suppose one might still speculate how that plays out here by comparing the overall inclusiveness of our scene with the range of possibilities to be found elsewhere.

On the evidence of this non-juried show -- it's open to any alliance member who wishes to participate -- the spectrum here seems perhaps a bit narrower, with more emphasis on figurative and abstract painting and sculpture than on, say, photography, video, conceptual art or installation.

But that also may be just a function of the kind of work likely to turn up in a large group show that allows for only one entry per artist.

In any case, I was somewhat surprised by what seemed like an unexpectedly large number of nudes -- a traditional form if ever there were one -- in the current show.

The category included works by F. Michelle Santos, Michelle Frazier, Rebecca Hulit, Catherine Evans, Sandra Sedmark Engle, Erika Jaeggli, Alexandra Dumas, Mic Miller, Bill Shimek, Gene Garcia, Christine Sajecki, Gretchen Anderson, Linda Litofsky and James Bell.

Some were abstract, some were figurative in various modernist styles and some even aspired to the old neo-classical ideal.

But what was striking was that no matter where you looked in the large first-floor gallery, with its inset partitions that practically double the available wall space, someone had put up some kind of image of the unclothed human body, which hasn't lost any of its allure for artists in the post-postmodern era.

Indeed, one of the strongest pieces of evidence suggesting the demise of postmodernism's ideological sway may be the prominent place the nude appears to occupy in a contemporary art environment supposedly characterized by its radical pluralism.

Postmodernism dismissed the nude as completely old hat, a pathetic remnant of the hated patriarchal hegemony of dead white male artists and their voyeuristic male clientele.

In The Big Show, though, almost all the nudes are by women, and some of them are sexy as all get out. So, go figure.

I thought the best photographers in the show -- artists like Dan Whipps, Mindy Kay Best and John Davis, all of whom are now working in the digital domain -- came closest to my idea of the contemporary cutting edge. (Not surprising, perhaps, given the pivotal role photography has assumed recently on the contemporary art scene.)

In particular, Whipps' image of an hourglass-shaped woman in an upscale home wrapped in blue cellophane and wearing a wreath of bright green tropical leaves -- the piece bears the provocative title In every dream home, a heartache -- struck me as a wonderful conflation of classical and biblical allusions with an unmistakably contemporary design sense.

The unnamed woman in the photograph is both seductress and heartbreaker, the Eve of Genesis and the Delilah of the Book of Judges, and her dangerous allure seems as eternal as that of any classical Venus.

Whipps' sleek image simultaneously celebrates and subverts the venerable tradition from which it springs, and by establishing this complex, ironic relationship to the art of the past it identifies itself absolutely as a work of the present moment.

"The Big Show" runs through July 29 at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-1651.

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