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Figure State

Traveler Series Stands Out in Group Show

Nora Sturges' "Marco Polo At A Restaurant"

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 1/21/2009

The smallest works--a few dozen miniatures by Towson professor and figurative painter Nora Sturges--are the most eye-catching in Framed Reality at Maryland Art Place. Perhaps this fact is a function of the way the show is set up, featuring work by four painters--Sturges, Daniel Finch, Brian Martin, and Becky Slemmons--whose styles and content are strikingly disparate. It's inevitable that one emerges a favorite. Sturges also has the entire front room to herself, and a far deeper swath of her work is presented. But apart from personal preference, Sturges' paintings, primarily allegorical landscapes populated by extremely detailed human figures that recall Fernando Botero or Diego Rivera, are virtuosic and engaging--at least much more so than anything else on view.

The oils of Sturges' "Marco Polo's Travels" series, for example, are difficult to tear your eyes from. In each, the titular character appears as a different middle aged-to-elderly man dressed in the type of clothing that looks straight out of a Land's End catalog--jeans, khakis, collared shirts, JanSport-style backpacks--arriving or cooling his heels in curiously otherworldly locales. Sturges is fastidious with details (she paints with the smallest watercolor brushes available), especially on clothing products, as though she is illustrating an old Sears catalog.

Italo Calvino's episodic novella Invisible Cities--in which Marco Polo, in describing to Kublai Khan the dozens of places he has visited, ends up only describing different versions of his hometown of Venice--is the inspiration for the series. Each of Sturges' episodes is thick with symbolism. "Marco Polo Among Idol Worshipers" finds the hero in a wooded town full of cozy red cottages, a sky full of crows, surrounded by middle-class looking white European "idol-worshippers," who look just like him, except they're covered in boils and open sores, presumably as punishment. The painting is about otherness, and the sense that so many people get when traveling with preconceptions that what strangers are doing is in fact strange, and sometimes wrong.

In "Marco Polo Welcomed at Moriana," the traveler stands before a Mission-style building that opens onto an opulent courtyard with a fountain. Two women beckon him to sit in an armchair with a glass of pink lemonade and slippers waiting nearby. But if you look closely, the fa%uFFFDade of the building is just that--thin as cardboard and held up by wooden props. Around the corner, you see the shabby, trash-strewn real city of Moriana with a torn up couch discarded in the street. Again, another very modern (and perhaps heavy-handed) travel reference--the classy exterior distracting the visitor from the realities of some third-world city--but revealed in an interesting way.

Sturges' smaller works, including a series of desert-colored miniatures that focus on rock striations, the grainy texture of the sand dunes that bury or envelope various forsaken cities ("Baltimore" is a brilliant painting of sawed-off rowhouses perched on Monument Valley-style bluffs), and other details, are just as compelling, but in a more focused way.

Finch renders large-scale paintings of Bruce Lee, Evel Knievel, skateboarders, and stills from Wolfman movies in large dots of paint and painted lines representing analog TV snow. He seeks to interpret manhood as it was presented to him in the 1970s and '80s: on blurry screens cut by white noise, or in movie theaters where celluloid is tattered and stretched. His message is reductive: these models of manhood are as hollow as their constituent parts and obscured by modernity, and they require distance to be understood. But Finch also fetishizes his subject by even bothering to render the curvaceous muscles of Bruce Lee and Tarzan with such care.

Less interesting are Martin's and Slemmons' work. Martin claims in an artist's statement to paint scenes that exorcise the cold, unwelcoming rootlessness of his suburban upbringing. His paintings are vivid and beautiful, but his style so apes Edward Hopper that it quickly becomes tiresome. Slemmons paints Dutch masters-inspired miniatures that she says are tied to stories that she writes. Most of them are fine, but without the stories' contexts, the pieces are hard to understand or appreciate. Her best work here is a series based on a young character named Sophia, who plays with her friends while wearing a set of swan's wings she has fashioned out of bed sheets and spoons. Each installment looks like it derives from Victorian-era pictures of parlor games, only darker, more starkly detailed, and at times, a better representation of a child's mind.

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