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Unofficial Views: Paintings by Susan Waters-Eller

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 11/20/2002

Unofficial Views: Paintings by Susan Waters-Eller

MICA's Pinkard Gallery through Dec. 15

God forbid art should be relevant. We've had that fear hard-wired into us, and it's only to our credit that the threat still jangles our nerves. Since the '60s counterculture orgy began, artists have felt free to use their work as a kind of political cudgel--and while it did a lot to open up galleries to street-level crowds, it also led to a lot of lazy, didactic, solipsistic crap. And it also created a self-defeating economy among its audiences: Whether you liked the work ended up depending on whether you agreed with it. Susan Waters-Eller began teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art soon after those days had slacked, though, and her work speaks of lessons learned. Unofficial Views, a display of her politically charged paintings, reaches its heights not through caviling but through clear-eyed observation

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Much of the subtlety that Waters-Eller brings to the canvas comes through not in her storytelling but in her technique. By and large, these are painted collages, although you can barely tell; under her layers of muted oils, she uses a transfer process to place tiny images that she's cadged from other sources--faces, emblems, TV-screen grabs. This forms the background of one of her most imposing pieces, the two-panel "Enter Fortress America" (pictured). From your position in the frame, you look up from the floor of an urban canyon, gray skyscrapers flanking you, the faceless eye of a security camera staring from one side and, at top, helicopters swarming like hornets. Behind it all is a bilious sky, painted over with a miasma of corporate logos--GE, Texaco, MCI. While the political effect is one of hitting fat targets, her technique telegraphs to you that she has a keen sense of the menacing.

These skills are put to the best use not when Waters-Eller targets some specific ill but when she documents its effects, itself a devastating commentary. In particular, her 1985 painting "There & Then" is downright prescient in its understanding of how commercial culture can create an order all its own. On what probably was once a hill, identical cars are parked in rows. Black lampposts rise into the nighttime sky as the rows undulate toward the horizon. And in the distance sits a building so flat and nondescript that you know without clues it's a supermarket or a mall. The sign that looms above it is the sole source of light, and the symbol it bears is a great cryptic glyph. It's meaningless. The deformed lay of the land is all that matters here, an endless repetition of cars, parking lines, and light posts that form almost hypnotic patterns. It serves as a warning--issued more than 15 years ago--that commerce has a will of its own, and it can impose its logic on us without compunction.

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