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Free 'n' Not-so-Easy

Somewhere Among the Table Tennis and Manicures of Covert, the Party Stops and the Art Begins

Fuck Art, Let's Get a Manicure: Opening night at the Whole Gallery's Covert show.

Photo courtesy the Whole Gallery.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/26/2003

Covert

Whole Gallery through April 4

The key to throwing a party for yourself without appearing vain is to treat your guests as if the event were being held in their honor, not yours. William Downs, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has got this party etiquette down to an art. For the past four years, he has invited fellow artists to celebrate his birthday by curating a group show of their work.

This year, his 29th, Downs' birthday present to himself is at the Whole Gallery (where City Paper photographer Uli Loskot co-curates shows), featuring paintings, drawings, sculpture, and multimedia installations from 34 artists, among them fellow MICA students, up-and-coming local artists, and more established contemporaries from Baltimore and beyond.

The title of the show, Covert, refers to the intentional absence of publicity surrounding the event and is informed by Downs' experiences as a gallery curator in Atlanta in the early 1990s. "I found that the shows that weren't advertised got the biggest crowds," he says. "When people learn about art through their own social networks, they're more likely to come out and have a good time."

The strategy seemed to be working at the show's kick-off party Saturday, March 15. The expansive loft space quickly filled with artists, friends, and friends of friends, and the atmosphere was decidedly more festive than your average gallery opening. There was the usual wine and cheese but also an impromptu flamenco guitar concert, heated Ping-Pong games, and complimentary manicures. There was also a rich sampling of provocative work.

"My only criterion for inclusion in the show was that the artists are hard workers," Downs says. "They're all studio people, the sort of artists who put in 10 hours a day."

Serious work ethic is evident in Jim Rieck's large oil-on-wood painting "Free and Easy Fit," which depicts, cropped at the neck and midriff, a woman modeling a 1950s-era bullet bra. Inspired by old Sears, Roebuck catalogs, the painting is a striking study in contrasts: The model's skin is painted a lush, satiny brown, making her ballistic bra really pop. Rieck, a former muralist, undermines the severity of the garment by having his subject's disembodied hand tugging at one of its ivory straps, which yields, all too easily, to her touch. The result is both violent and sensual, while retaining the detached coolness of advertising art.

Evincing both rigor and a rare attempt at intelligent political art, Steve Pauly's untitled sculpture is composed of seven black granite tiles arranged in a row on the floor. The first six tiles are engraved with images representing, in chronological order, six events that have recently terrorized the nation: the 1982 Tylenol murders, the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, Sept. 11, the anthrax letters, and the Washington-area sniper. The top tile depicts the Homeland Security Advisory System terror alert scale with its five levels, from "Low" to "Severe." By placing the tiles on the floor, Pauly requires the viewer to bend down to make out the fine details of his etchings and, in effect, to pay homage to the victims of those events that have held Americans captive with fear. Only one of the incidents illustrated was an act of foreign terrorism, suggesting that we may have more to fear from homegrown lunatics than from those in the Middle East. But Pauly's piece also raises some questions about the conceptual integrity of the work. Why are six terrorist incidents juxtaposed with five terror alert levels? And what is the relationship between the historical events and the alert hierarchy? Despite its shortcomings, Pauly's art is commendable for its willingness to engage the political sphere without resorting to platitudes and naive polemics.

Perhaps more successful, though less ambitious in its engagement with current events, is Geoff Grace's "Merry, Merry Month of Maybe," a Ping-Pong table constructed of unfinished wood, whose net consists of shredded strips of The Sun from last May. The piece lures the viewer with an invitation to escape from the grim news of the day but ends up subverting its own impulse by soliciting the players to interact with the newspaper in a playful dialogue. Ping-Pong also happens to be a hell of a game, especially after a few cocktails, and Grace's table was heavily subscribed throughout the evening.

Another popular and interactive piece was Tabatha Tucker's nail-painting station, where the installation artist, who is also the associate director of exhibitions and programs at the Contemporary Museum, applied a coat of "white gold" nail polish to any willing guest. The service wasn't merely cosmetic; Tucker envisioned her installation as an opportunity to start a relevant conversation: "The first thing people ask when they sit down is usually, 'Is this art?' and then we can discuss that." Tucker tempered what might have been a mildly pretentious enterprise with a keen sense of what really matters: "We don't have to talk, though," she says. "I just like holding people's hands." Judging from the number of silvery nails making the rounds at the Whole, a lot of people like having their hands held.

Other standout pieces in Covert include London artist Debra Scacco's series of extreme close-up photographs of burning milk, which take on the grotesque textures of festering wounds, and Annie Schap's "When I said I love you, I meant that I love you forever," which features those REO Speedwagon lyrics scrawled on a slab of bathroom tile. Schap seems to be suggesting a kindler, gentler rest room graffiti--perhaps what men imagine gets penned in the stalls of the ladies' room--until you read the display card and realize that the words are written in a potion of the artist's own sebum and skin, carefully cultivated in post-shower body scrapings.

In a fitting gesture of party protocol, the birthday boy's own art is not included in his show. "I take my pleasure from putting the work together," says Downs, who also works as an art installer at the Contemporary. "I get a rush out of installing art, working with the artists, making sure all their needs are met." Miss Manners would approve.

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