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Ways of Looking

Two Towson Shows Try To Venture Beneath The Surface Of Plain, Old Seeing

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: A painting from Creighton Michael's "Notation" series.

By J. Bowers | Posted 2/14/2007

Apart from the big museums downtown, there aren't too many places in and around Baltimore where you can check out one art show, then climb up a flight of stairs and catch another. The Towson University Center for the Arts packs a decent one-two punch this month with master of fine arts photographer Amy Pointer's Reclamation, a series of images documenting the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, and Squigglelinear, a survey of works by noted contemporary painter and sculptor Creighton Michael.

It's strange and sad to say, but after seeing more than a year's worth of images, newscasts, and films about the devastation in New Orleans, the driving concept behind Reclamation feels somewhat cliché. While it's still vitally important to remind the American public that New Orleans is full of displaced people trying to rebuild their lives, both literally and figuratively, the images that document the process are starting to blur into an indistinguishable mass.

That said, it's crucial that artists who choose to photograph New Orleans do so in new and inventive ways, using fresh techniques, perspectives, and subjects to foster ongoing, engaged awareness about the city's rebuilding process. Pointer partially succeeds with Reclamation by treating her camera like a microscope instead of relying on sweeping, panoramic shots of ruined neighborhoods. She snaps extreme closeups of various Katrina wreckage, focusing more on the texture and color of the objects than their actual identities, and amplifying both by presenting the images as transparencies on light boxes.

"Reclamation," a 10-minute film describing Pointer's October 2006 trip to New Orleans--where she naturally helped with the relief effort in addition to taking these photos--serves as a key to help you understand what, exactly, you're looking at in the photographs. Watching the short, you learn that the orange, burlaplike swatch of rumpled material in "Last Grasp" is actually an abandoned lifejacket. "Dino's Canals," a white, fossilized-looking stretch of pavement shot through with deep black cracks, turns out to be the sidewalk near a dinosaur mural at a derelict elementary school. In "Seven and a Half," flying debris have left harsh brown scars in a doorway that was previously painted bright orange and blue.

It's certainly a new way of seeing New Orleans' current situation, but the "what am I looking at now?" game gets old after a while. Pointer is at her best when her subject matter is more readily apparent, as in "Halftones," an arresting image of a smashed and water-stained violin. Like the lifejacket in "Last Grasp," once you know what you're seeing, the object has a secret history that makes it especially provocative.

Upstairs, Creighton Michael's Squigglelinear is a beautifully curated class act, co-sponsored by the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. Preoccupied as Michael is with, well, squiggles and lines, his sculptures and paintings feel like natural extensions of and variations on a single endless work of art.

Michael's clear debt to abstract expressionists is readily apparent in his monumental "Notation" series, along with his keen grasp of modern design. These paintings are massive, messy affairs, with white loops, lines, and dashes layered on fields of gray-black, but they possess a freewheeling openness despite Michael's dark palette, almost a Zen-like quality.

His sculptures, which are essentially three-dimensional drawings, are surprisingly whimsical. Michael's chosen materials for "Squiggle Shelf" and "Squiggle Linear"--tiny fragments of rope coated with a mixture of graphite, paper, and acrylic--basically look like demented Twizzlers as they curl intriguingly out of the white walls and rest on the gallery floor.

While it would be nice to see more of a visual correspondence between the pieces clinging to the walls and the ones that have "fallen" onto the floor below, the "Squiggle" sculptures provide a playful counterpoint to Michael's more staid, scientific "Grid" series. Comprised of steel wire, rubber, and black plastic tubing, each piece in this series apparently arrived with a schematic showing the show's installers how to mount it on a 24-inch-by-24-inch predrilled grid in the wall or on the four sides of a standard display pedestal. Though these schematics are sadly absent here, the mechanical feel of the finished pieces echoes the familiar sight of wires tangled behind a computer desk or sprouting out of a wall socket.

On the other hand, Michael's 2006 "Field" paintings look out of place among his other works--particularly because they're the only pieces in the show that deviate from his established palette of black, white, and steel gray. Translated into nigh-fluorescent oranges, fuchsias, and teals, Michael's trademark dots and lines begin to feel overwhelming and busy. And unlike his other works, which somehow evade the human desire to interpret, you can't look at the convex canvases of the "Field" series without imagining that they're actually pictures of DNA, or amoebas, or some other "real thing"--as in, just squiggles and lines. And where's the fun in that?

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