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Art

Underworld

Edgy Underground Group Show Well Suited To Gallery Space

Detail of Jessie Lehson's "Ringworm"
René Treviño's "Cary Grant 'n' Randolph Scott"

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/28/2006

Arbitrary Specifics

At Sub-Basement Artists Studios through July 8

You’d be forgiven for saying that Jessie Lehson’s artwork is a load of dirt. “Ringworm” is a set of four meticulously measured squares of dirt, obsessively sifted to remove all rocks, cigarette butts, and other impurities. At first glance, sprawled across the floor of Sub-Basement Artist Studios’ vast gallery space, Lehson’s installation looks like it could be a series of thin carpets, cut to fit around the building’s massive support pillars. Indeed, unthinking revelers at the exhibit’s opening reception wandered right through the piece, scattering dirt and scribbling web site addresses with their fingers. It’s a shame they didn’t know the whole story behind Lehson’s work. Collected surreptitiously from the yards surrounding her four ex-best friends’ homes, located in Hampden, College Park, Bel Air, and Federal Hill, the four plots of earth—and the effort it took to create them—are a monument to the emotional “dirt” that destroys human relationships.

Of course, none of the installation’s emotional backstory is readily apparent by looking at the dirt on the floor, but the quirky concept behind it fits right in with the other works in Arbitrary Specifics, a show curated by mixed-media artist (and erstwhile City Paper contributor) Cara Ober. Allegedly dealing with artists’ ability to “twist reality into unfamiliar and uncommon terms,” this show is more accurately described as a hip who’s who of young local talent.

Julie Benoit, previously known for large, mysterious paintings and drawings that make vague, lowercase references to “John Deere” and ask, “are you my cowboy?” has scaled down her operations some—perhaps as a result of her recent move to New York. Benoit’s fascination with hot pink, turquoise, and other bubblegum colors remains, but smaller works like “This Was for Rambo” come on like Technicolor versions of ancient Japanese landscape paintings, with familiar little “m”-shaped birds hovering over intricate pen-and-ink mountain peaks and far fewer textual elements than earlier works.

As ever, Benoit’s pieces are a pleasing complement to Ober’s similarly colored mixed-media pieces. Still working on the smaller scale seen at Gallery Imperato’s recent Femme Effect show, Ober’s recent pieces make liberal use of her pet motifs, which include fleur-de-lis designs, birds, childlike doodles, and vintage dictionary typography.

Similarly, with “Tests,” a collection of scraps from her studio floor, installation artist Marci Branagan strives to collage found elements and quick, throwaway splotches of paint. Perhaps fittingly, this work, along with her “From the Artist’s Archive of Found Objects,” feels more like a prelude to art-making than an actual effort. Five years ago, a table scattered with lost and tossed shopping lists, love notes, and drawings would have been a revelation, but in the wake of Found Magazine, PostSecret, and other pop-culture phenomena, Branagan’s work has a stale quality.

Jackie Milad’s cheeky figure drawings have undergone an intriguing metamorphosis. Her new “Book of Worms” series appears to draw inspiration from ancient Egyptian figural compositions, depicting a bald androgyne in various stages of removing an acid-green worm from its nether regions, beneath glittering gold breastlike stalactites. Interestingly, Milad often makes several attempts at rendering each figure in pencil and leaves the remains of her erased efforts visible behind the finished drawings, giving her lines a soft and ghostly air.

Installation artist April Lewis’ “Muddled Puddles,” a series of charred scraps of paper scattered across the floor, isn’t much to look at, but the philosophy behind her gel-medium-drenched attempt to retard the burning process of the love letters, unpaid bills, photographs, and plans she torched in order to create the piece is conceptually intriguing. Her other offering, “Perishables,” is far less so. Dismantled mere days after the exhibit’s opening, the piece featured pears floating in nine glass vases full of water—pears that inevitably rotted and had to be removed from the gallery. As a conceptual work, this piece is far too predictable.

Surrounded by the riot of color provided by the other artists in the show, René Treviño’s black and white pieces are all the more compelling. Treviño’s witty, subversive works recast traditional “manly” pop-culture imagery as a celebration of homosexuality. “Cary Grant ’n’ Randolph Scott,” a graphite drawing that depicts the two Hollywood icons and longtime housemates in a passionate embrace, their bodies intertwined to form one gray mass, does not disappoint.

Many of the artists featured in Arbitrary Specifics have exhibited together before, and nearly all share a similar aesthetic, with heavy reliance on ultrabright fluorescent colors, street art/graffiti techniques and motifs, and an interest in found objects. Though the intended reality-bending theme of the show doesn’t really come through, all 13 artists produce the type of work that looks right at home in the gritty, industrial environs of Sub-Basement.

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