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Shades of Black

Villa Julie College Offers a Show that's Dark in More Ways than One

The Angle: Though less grim than its gallery-mates, Peter Martin's "Waiter At The Flore" lends its own sultry darkness and sleek lines to the show.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 12/25/2002


Villa Julie College through Jan. 18

The modernist cube of a gallery space at Villa Julie College has gone black for its current exhibit. Although its walls are still painted the same pristine white, the three artists in Noir all make art that is dark in more ways than one.

Beyond establishing a somber mood together and having the color black in common, the work on display here doesn't otherwise cohere. This makes the show's curatorial underpinnings seem a tad facile, even in these dark months of winter. But there's no reason to grumble when you think of all the two- and three-artist exhibits in which the artists' only commonality is a shared membership in the human race. The real problem here is that two of these artists make a much stronger showing than the third.

Easily the most impressive among this dark-minded trio is Peter Martin, a Canadian newspaper photographer currently living in Annapolis. His black-and-white shots document his travels to France and other countries, but his sensibility is much more distinctive than the photojournalistic norm.

Some of Martin's finest shots were taken in Paris, where he holds his own within a city possessing a distinguished history of street photography. "Waiter at the Flore" fits within the street tradition, but it's about the geometric division of the composition as much as it is about a waiter standing alone at a sidewalk cafe. Notice the cafe tables occupying the lower right corner of the composition, the street running on a diagonal from the lower left to upper right, and the waiter whose white apron and black vest essentially make him a man divided in two.

The reliance on diagonal lines is the formal constant in this photographer's approach. In "Waiting," a solitary person stands beside a suitcase on a train station platform at night. Other photos feature people seated on trains and airplanes, gazing out windows at the passing scenery, with the frame again emphasizing diagonals. There is a vectorlike forcefulness in such compositions, though, Martin's photos amount to frozen motion. His subjects often are positioned on or near vehicles, yet they seem contemplatively still, even when those vehicles are moving. Anybody who has daydreamed while staring out an airplane window will identify with this sensation.

Martin's congenial neighbor--at least in terms of artistic quality--is Irene Liotis, a Texas-born painter now living in Baltimore. Her background as a journalist in San Francisco informs her series of paintings, "Scene of the Crime," in which she depicts murder scenes from which the bodies and other evidence have been removed. Rather than opting for a photo-realist approach to these locations, she deliberately blurs her imagery via a melding of black, gray, and white. You won't find blood stains at these scenes; instead, the paintings are such ominously dark renderings that your imagination can readily supply the missing crime lab-destined details.

In the painting captioned "Black patch in leaf-covered creek bed where victim was forcibly dragged," Liotis has painted a large white arrow to call our attention to a spot amid dense vegetation where the victim was found. Likewise, a painting bearing a caption worthy of an Elmore Leonard crime novel, "The search ended beneath the palmetto" features an arrow pointing to a palm grove. Where dwellings are concerned, the scary title "Luminescent technique revealed evidence that the killer's cleanup efforts missed" belongs to an otherwise mundane painting depicting the corner of a room; and "Outside mobile home where slayings occurred" is such a dull exterior view that a window air conditioning unit seems to be the most exciting pictorial element.

The third artist, Rachel Rotenberg, is a Canadian living in Baltimore. Her three untitled wood and mixed-media sculptures don't always succeed in either formal or thematic terms, but their black-smudged wood surfaces at least make them more or less fit into the show.

Her most problematic piece is a three-legged wood construction whose assorted parts include a spherical form, a podlike shape, a shovel-shaped section, and an opening that resembles the entrance to a dark cave. Some portions are rounded, others are flat, and the sculpture's various projections keep your eyes busy. But it seems like this sculptor is testing out ideas and tossing in everything except the kitchen sink in the process. And because this is a large sculpture, it unfortunately dominates the room.

Rather arbitrarily shaped extensions also characterize Rotenberg's otherwise less busy second sculpture, which merits inclusion in this exhibit if only for its incorporation of a black-hued ball imprisoned in a rusty metal cage. That's "noir" enough for me. But her third piece deserves a longer look. It's a gourdlike wood form in which you can appreciate the handsome grain, with a rope fastened to it in vinelike fashion. The looping rope is itself connected to a black metal rod which rests on the gourd, whose surface is depressed, as if it has been beaten by that imposing rod. Thus does Villa Julie College wish you a merry Christmas.

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