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A Place to Hang

Emerging Young Artists Make Room for Themselves at the Mission Space

Analyze This: Julie Benoit's etchings look like sketchy blueprints.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/11/2002

Winter: A Collection of Work

Mission Space through Jan. 11

Faced with a last-minute opening in its exhibition calendar, the Mission Space opted to fill the void by holding its first-ever group show this month. The exhibit, which features work from curators Julie Benoit and Barbara Jean Johnson and seven other artists, displays evidence of its hasty assemblage--it lacks any thematic or conceptual coherence--but it delivers a diverse and appealing selection of small paintings, drawings, hand-colored prints, and limited-edition etchings worthy of notice.

If there's a common thread to the work represented here, it's the shared background of its producers: working artists in their 20s or early 30s, most with some formal art training, generally undergraduate degrees from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art. Because of limited space, and the number of artists represented, you won't get an opportunity to examine any one artist's work in-depth, but the show does offer a vivid snapshot of the sort of work that locally trained young artists are producing.

The most interesting pieces by far are by the printmakers. Julie Benoit's series of carefully composed etchings, tinted a pale gold and highlighted with the colors of autumn leaves, look like stylized blueprints. Accompanying these prints are oil paintings that extend the blueprint motif and employ the same shape palette: multicolored ribbons of stairs, rooms that have the watery outlines like those of single-cell organisms, and rows of bottles. Why bottles? "They're actually supposed to be people," Benoit says. Ah. Well, whether this is a commentary on consumption or an unconscious acknowledgment of Baltimore drinking habits is up to the viewer. Either way, they're lovely.

Outside the gallery scene, Benoit subsidizes her artistic endeavors with old-fashioned entrepreneurial hustle. In her case, it's a dog-walking business that takes hundreds of local pooches on tours of the city each week. And one of her employees is Jessica Coven, whose prints and hand-colored engravings comprise some of the most compelling art in the show. Coven's art is an homage to her recently divorced parents. On the paternal side are four prints of stationery note cards sent to the artist "From the Desk of Donald H. Coven," containing fatherly admonishments like: "REMEMBER WHAT I SAID!" and "DON'T FORGET LINEN AND INSTRUCTIONS. LOVE AND KISSES, DAD." Coven says she was motivated to make prints of the cards because she was touched by the elegance of her father's careful handwriting, and by his instinctively harmonious layout on the small cards. The content of the message themselves, almost boisterous expressions of stern paternal love, convey an odd poignancy. To reproduce the notes, Coven has transferred the original notes to copper plates and made prints of them. The process has changed the notes subtly, attributing them with random sprinklings of black dots. Even the printed stationery heading is slightly altered, and different in each note. Beside Dad's notes, Coven hangs delicate flower patterns copied from Mom's Limoges dish ware set, a wedding gift. "After the divorce, my mother decided she didn't need 24 place settings anymore and she split them up between herself, me, and my sister," she says. Marriage is fragile, but Coven gives new life to the broken china in these delicate, exquisitely colored flowers.

On a slightly bawdier note, Taryn Wolf literally glosses over striking images by covering her acrylic paints in a polymer resin that imbues her canvases with a glassy, liquid sheen. Her pastel pieces depict whimsical subjects--vintage girls' bloomers, bunny-rabbit slippers--against backgrounds influenced by 1950s wallpaper patterns. There is something decidedly violent, however, about Wolf's plastic treatment of Victorian or archival subjects. The crotch of the bloomers, for example, is violated by two lightning-shaped yellow slits, which, the artist says, represent the functional openings found on Victorian women's undergarments, but there's no denying the disturbing interruption of this jagged shape on an otherwise placid piece. Also, the bunnies look, for some reason, dead.

William Downs' series of androgynous beings-on-the-beach, superimposed upon watercolor images of sharks, are both playful and surreal. The current MFA student at MICA, a recent transplant from Greenville, S.C., draws each figure in multiple dimensions and various poses, imbuing the simple line drawings with a rich sense of movement and gesture. Similarly playful are Tara Jane O'Neil's mischievous sketches of stick figures on small wood squares. O'Neil, a rock musician and self-trained artist from Louisville, Ky., achieves a lot with little squares of wood and acrylic paint, creating a series of bubble-headed stick figures that express a multitude of emotions with a restrained vocabulary.

Less satisfying are Barbara Jean Johnson's miniature meditations on abstract shapes, which seem dashed off, and Van Hanos' paintings, which combine splashes of paint with detailed representational drawing but end up looking unfinished.

At the time of this writing, finally, Rashanna Rashied-Walker's sculpture--the only one in the show--consisted of hundreds of clear, triangular Plexiglass tents, dissembled and stored in about a dozen garbage bags. The artist, a 2001 graduate of MICA, arrived on the scene and started assembling her work in a corner of the small gallery. She wasn't sure exactly what her piece would look like when complete, but she promised that the finished product would be at least eight feet tall, which should balance the mostly smaller other pieces in the show with some monumental scale.

Gallery director Todd Lesser says this last-minute show allows him to fulfill one of his avowed goals for the Mission Space: to showcase young, relatively unknown artists who otherwise have few places to hang their work. "There's not a lot of cohesion in the Baltimore art scene," Lesser says. "If you're not a student, it's very frustrating to be an artist in this town." All in all, the winter group show at the Mission Space does succeed in bringing a sense of community to this promising group of young artists, giving them, in Lesser's words, "a place to hang."

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