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Whimsy Pickings

Imagination-themed exhibition not that imaginative

One of Paul Chidester's paintings.

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 3/25/2009

Fantastical Imaginings

Through March 28 at Maryland Art Place and Loyola College's Julio Fine Arts Gallery

Fantastical Imaginings, the exhibition currently on view at Maryland Art Place and Loyola College, falls a little short of delivering anything more than bland drollery. Originally exhibited at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, Fantastical Imaginings is a strange grouping of 14 artists working within the vague category of the "imagination." Suffering mostly from curatorial decisions--in both venues, the show is grouped stagnantly by artist, with no attempt made to create cohesion within the exhibition--the result resembles an issue of Juxtapoz geared toward an elementary-school audience. The innocuous imagery of bunnies, robots, children, and unalarming gore is punctuated only by the seemingly inappropriate inclusions of Laylah Ali and John Karpinski, both of whom express a refreshing lack of seriousness within the group of simpering illustrations.

Oddly imbalanced (Amy Cutler and Anne Siems each exhibit one piece, while A.D. Loveday has nine drawings included between the two locations), and ranging in subject matter from Marie Antoinette to cutesy, anamorphic bone piles, it is hard to move comfortably from one body of work to the next. The included images depict various degrees of departure from reality: some landscapes are as common as your own neighborhoods, while others disintegrate the familiar into sci-fi scribbles. While variety can be a plus in group shows, the anachronistic divide between puffy, 18th-century figures portrayed by Marilyn Holsing, Siems, and to an extent, Claire Owen and Serena Perrone, and a more contemporary esthetic favored by Mark Hosford, A. D. Loveday, and John Karpinski feels like a ramshackle assemblage of two separate ideas into one exhibition, with some negligible filler--namely John Shipman and Lee Wilkinson--to span the visual gap.

While the show features primarily two-dimensional work, the odd woman out is Roberley Bell, who includes two, lumpy, awkward "flower blobs." Her sculptures, which are split up, sit in the corner of the front and rear rooms of Maryland Art Place's gallery and, in their separation, appear to be swallowed by the vastness of the exhibition space. Strangely marginalized by their placement, the neon, flower-encrusted structures have as much impact as a potted plant, with zero relationship to the rest of the work. To be fair, both sculptures effectively mimic potted plants.

In what is an apparent subdivision of the greater theme, Paul Chidester, A.D. Loveday and John Shipman's work falls, albeit with mild success, into the category of social and environmental consciousness. Loveday's scribbled robots on minimal, colored backgrounds suggest a dystopian, futuristic examination of technology. The intricacy of Loveday's foreground work loses its interest against their inappropriately bold backgrounds; her work is most interesting when she sticks with black and white contrasts. Shipman shows a series of (perhaps, self-) portraiture that conveys his love of trees and animals; in one, his heart offers a carrot to a rabbit. Chidester, in particular, attempts to deliver wisdom about preservation and civilization's effect on the landscape, portraying polluted or transitional spaces seemingly guarded by single, ape figures. His puffy, undulating style separates his message from a recognizable world, and the works' small scale and stylization likens them to children's book illustrations. The vehicle is ill-suited for the message.

John Karpinski and Laylah Ali's works both stand out as being the most interesting and most visually different. Karpinski's comic-book storyboards fit under the umbrella of the theme, but have an energizing and youthful feel while much of the other work is comparatively stodgy. Karpinski's work feels the most complete, delivering a light-hearted and humorous supernatural curiosity with the narrative included in the comic format. Ali includes her newer, stark portraits of ambiguously costumed figures in this exhibition. While her earlier work may have fit more appropriately, and brought a bit more edge, her clean, un-flowery hand is a welcome, visual break. The indeterminate interactions of Ali's characters require no additional explanation; their strength is in both their ambiguity and their craft.

With few exceptions, the works in Fantastical Imaginings look like illustrations in search of their accompanying narratives, and feel oddly incomplete without them. No visual or thematic thread ties the overall exhibition together, and while factions exist within the whole, the work was not hung to consider them. Traveling exhibitions don't always find as much success in their latter manifestations, but with a little re-organization, Fantastical Imaginings may have been a little more fantastical.

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