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Sight Gags

Some Art is Funny Ha-Ha. Other Art is Just Funny.

Thrown a Curve: In this shot by Bruce Charlesworth, "No. 51," what you don't know is part of the joke.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 10/9/2002

Serious Humorists and Selected Works 1996-2002

Bruce Charlesworth, Pamela de Marris, Michael E. Northrup, Maria Elena Gonzalez

Maryland Art Place through Oct. 12

Bruce Charlesworth's photographs often resemble black-and-white film noir from the 1940s--only his shots are in color. Although Charlesworth is more colorfully graphic in other ways, his tightly stage-managed images are darkly humorous rather than dramatically disturbing.

The best noir-evocative shot in Slumberland, his selection of photos at Maryland Art Place, comes from a series he calls "Man and Nature." In "No. 51" of the series, a strikingly composed photo depicts a brightly illuminated man walking down an otherwise dark and desolate road. He is carrying a woman who seems like she has either passed out or perhaps been gravely injured in an accident. The latter impression is accentuated by the emphatic arrows on road signs directly in front of him, and by the metal guard rail that stretches along the curve in the road he's walking down.

Just as it's not clear what's wrong with the woman, the nature of their relationship remains mysterious. He is wearing a wedding ring, but is the injured woman his wife? His mistress? And when is this taking place? The woman is wearing a dress suitable for a 1940s femme fatale, but is this an event from out of the past? Or is she a contemporary gal who's into retro chic?

The melodramatic story possibilities are so extreme that you might find yourself indulging in an uneasy laugh. Charlesworth's vividly cibachrome-hued shots establish the prevailing mood in this exhibit of three photographers. Curated by Satre Stuelke, Serious Humorists features work that uses a lot of studio-shot-style artifice for its imagery. Artificial nature is used to illuminate human nature--specifically, what happens when the bourgeois norm is somehow called into question. Although a number of photography exhibits, among them Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1992, have gone into similar suburban terrain, the subject and style remain as alive as a cibachrome red.

The second photographer in the MAP show, Pamela de Marris, is so studio-bound that real nature never appears in her scenarios. In her series, "Pink People," she photographs six-inch plastic figurines placed in little rooms outfitted with dollhouse furniture. Typically, she'll have two pink-toned female dolls in a room talking via cartoon balloon-type captions. The ladies gossip about love affairs, weight gain, and consumer purchases. You'll laugh at much of what these ever-bitching social climbers have to say, but it's facile laughter. De Marris hit her easy target time and time again.

The third photographer, City Paper contributor Michael Northrup, initially seems like he doesn't belong with the other two. Using digital photography, he casually shoots the people and places in his domestic environment. But his series, "Skipreadings," has enough images that make reality seem a tad off balance, or at least mystifying.

He often achieves his strange effects through the blunt use of cropping and camera placement, in what otherwise might be mundane shots. There's a shot of the demolished remains of Memorial Stadium that goes beyond the photojournalistic norm, for instance, owing to a hand holding wreckage that reaches into the frame. In another shot, the camera is positioned in such a way that a dandelion in the foreground blocks the face of a dog that sits in the middle distance; the scene takes place in a dandelion-punctuated field, with Television Hill antennas cropping up on the horizon. Northrup takes his camera through everyday Baltimore, but he sees it in such a way that the familiar is made to seem unfamiliar.

Moving from photography to sculpture, representation to abstraction, and downtown Baltimore to suburban Catonsville, the Cuban-born, New York-based sculptor Maria Elena Gonzalez has an exhibit whose spare esthetic is handsomely served by the spare, cubelike gallery at UMBC's Center for Art and Visual Culture. Besides her sculptures, this process-oriented show features drawings and photographs that document the creation of some pieces and the site-specific installation of others that were either too early or too large to display in this career survey.

Although Gonzalez's sculptures remain abstractions, their shapes (and titles) often refer to such common domestic items as cakes, champagne glasses, and carpets. In an interview in the accompanying catalog, she points out the significance of such things in her own family history.

Take the largest sculpture on display here, "Basebowl." It's partly inspired by her late father's love of baseball and partly fueled by the fact that it was originally made for the Queens Museum, near New York's Shea Stadium. The foundation of the piece is a giant wood bowl lined with white vinyl, which in itself resembles the shape of a stadium. But in the center of the bowl sits a pile of baseballs, and from the top of the pile rises a column of baseballs strung together that reaches all the way to the ceiling. At first glance, this unusual piece may prompt you to think of nothing other than baseball. But fortunately, it doesn't limit interpretation to a single line (or line drive) reading.

Gonzalez's pieces don't all resonate so pleasingly. Her "Black Cake," for example, is nice enough as an oval-shaped layer-cake-like form made from Styrofoam, fabric, and rubber, but it possesses neither the size nor the intellectual recipe to make you linger. Gonzalez wants to domesticate the arid legacy of much minimalist sculpture, but usually the austerity of her tendencies wins out.

So it will be interesting to see how her UMBC-sponsored project, "Magic Carpet/Home," turns out. Scheduled to be installed next spring in City Springs Park in East Baltimore, it will be a floorlike surface painted with the exact blueprint of a typical nearby public-housing apartment. Slightly elevated above the ground, the floor's undulating surface should look like a magic carpet, perhaps metaphorically encouraging local residents to let their spirits soar. Gonzalez has already done similar installations in New York and Pittsburgh. Documentation of those projects, along with some exhibited smaller "carpets," bodes well for a playful yet serious public project for Baltimore.

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