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Group Dynamics

Two Varying Multiartist Shows in South Baltimore

Justin Storms' "Ship vs. Whale vs. Squid."

By Kate Noonan | Posted 8/6/2008

Passage; To Overthrow or Overturn: The Art of Accident, Disaster, and Catastrophe

At the Library through Aug. 16; At School 33 Art Center through Aug. 9

To Overthrow or Overturn's closing reception takes place Aug. 7 from 6-9 p.m. Passage's closing reception takes place Aug. 16 from 5-8 p.m.

Jason Hughes likes good craftsmanship. This is evident in his assembly of works in Passage, a group exhibition currently on view at the Library that the former City Paper contributor curated. The exhibition refreshingly defies the stereotype of the summer group show: Hughes presents a cohesive collection of impressively meticulous pieces from Justin Storms, Richard Roussell, Maggie Covert, Matthew McConville, Phillip Estlund, and Eamon Espey, who all examine the ways in which ritual, conquest, and crisis shape and mold individual identities and the effects these changes have on society as a whole. The works often come across as historical documents, particularly poignant considering they are housed in one of Baltimore's original--and now defunct--Enoch Pratt Free Libraries.

Storms' nine small-scale oil paintings and one large drawing depict whaling scenes with an intensity of detail and pervasiveness of narrative that is at once antiquated yet strangely contemporary. Despite their initial appearance as studious illustrations of a long-forgotten trade, Storms' works reflect a subtle humor that makes them endlessly interesting and approachable. In his massive graphite on paper "It's Hard to Find a Home When the World Is the Color of Bone," Storms uses a skewed perspective that gives the work a period feel, and also allows him to present an amalgam of scenes on one long and narrow surface. His vignettes not only portray the lives of seafarers but also those of penguins, walruses, and whales. Storms' imagination offers a greatly entertaining collection of images, and it's evident that his passion for the subject is informed by extensive research.

It's easy to overlook Covert's "Engulfed," a small installation of handmade houses perched along the gallery's windowsills. It is composed of a grouping of tiny handmade wooden houses placed in glass bowls with gravel and grass and submerged in varying levels of water. The works, exposed to sunlight each day, inevitably grow new life, as algae clouds the water, climbs the sides of the bowls, and forms thin films across the surfaces. Covert's work recalls the imagery of the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the more recent Midwest floods, and the installation evokes a sense of melancholy and latent anxiety: You know that, left untouched, the submerged houses will eventually decay and disintegrate, but you're powerless to change their fate.

McConville, who appropriates art-historical styles throughout his entire body of work, continues to do so in his seven small oils from his 2007 "Earthworks" series. McConville turns to the 19th-century American Hudson River Valley School's grand style of painting to question the ways in which Earth Artists of the 1960s-'70s altered nature to suit their own conceptual visions. As Hudson River Valley artists such as Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt painted imagined or embellished versions of real places, here McConville continues the tradition, but with a new twist. His impossibly beautiful fields are dotted with gargantuan orbs, massive waterfalls cascading in a perfect circle at the center of a lake, and an imposing black cube towering over a softly rendered forest. Where Bierstadt created his grand scenes to illustrate the awe-inspiring power of nature over humanity, McConville depicts the stronghold man has upon nature.

Where Passage's artists display a shared maturity of thought, School 33's To Overthrow or Overturn feels comparably young. Where both the works and the exhibition's underlying theme are precise in Passage's concept and execution, To Overthrow is underdeveloped and uneven.

Curator Alexandra Macchi's (an erstwhile CP contributor) self-indulgent introductory essay sets To Overthrow's unsophisticated tone, and although there are a few bright spots, the show is by and large reminiscent of an undergraduate art show. There are certainly a number of bold and ambitious statements, but most are lacking in a clear sense of direction and theory.

Of the few standouts in the two-level show of more than 20 works, most noteworthy is a video installation by Chiara Giovando. Set in a small studio, "Pink Legs Brown Dirt" is a captivating but painful performance the artist shot on site at School 33. Remnants of the piece are installed around the television on which the video plays; linoleum fragments are adhered to the floor and a pair of tired peep-toe pumps sit quietly just outside the door. The video itself depicts the artist's legs donning shocking-pink fishnet stockings and the high-heel shoes now displayed at the entryway. What follows is a masochistic performance in which the artist fills the fishnets with gravel, rubbing it against her skin, and finally rinsing it away. Like many of the other works in To Overthrow, "Pink Legs Brown Dirt" evokes a visceral reaction. It's almost sickening to watch as the artist scrubs her skin with the coarse dirt mixture, and you feel relieved when she rinses it away at the end. H

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