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Globe Hopping

The Art of Three Continents Comes to Towson

Sunghee Kim, "Born to be Exposed to Information Society"
Painted Lady: Mario Castillo's "The Letter" (above), featured in an exhibit of Honduran artists at Towson University, mixes elements of baroque, modernism, and the old masters.
Tobi Kahn's acrylic painting "Quinta," part of his show at the college's Holtzman Gallery.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 3/6/2002

Four Honduran Artists, Interwoven and Correspondence

Mario Castillo, Virgilio Guardiola, Xenia Mejia, Rolando Lopez Trochez, Recent Work by Sunghee Kim, Recent Paintings by Tobi Kahn

Towson University's University Union Art Gallery through March 23

You can take a quick international art tour of Honduras, Korea, and New York simply by making a single trip to the three art galleries at Towson University. Think of it as a multicultural field trip.

Because Honduras is a country that generally doesn't get much gallery exposure this far north, most won't know quite what to expect from the Four Honduran Artists showing in the University Union Art Gallery. It turns out they use some of the same imagistic strategies and art-historical references as many contemporary artists from the United States, but they also incorporate more culturally specific imagery, ranging from Baroque religious painting to bullfighting.

In Mario Castillo's acrylic-and-oil painting "The Letter," a letter-writing woman is depicted the sort of pose that one can find in portraits done hundreds of years ago by the likes of Vermeer. Likewise, the dramatic contrast between the woman's gleaming white skin and the dark background was a device favored by artists of the Baroque era. But in this painting and others, Castillo is a Modernist in the extreme degree to which he obscures parts of the figures and invigorates the traditionally neutral background with more visible brush strokes and zones of color.

Virgilio Guardiola exhibits acrylic paintings such as "Critical Study" and "Made According to the Rules," in which muscular nudes, vases, and other still-life elements also seem lifted from art-historical sources. However, the images are busily juxtaposed within shallow pictoral space, creating a contemporary sort of disorienting effect. The artist also places gridded lines and directional arrows atop his representational images, adding to the sense that the paintings are hyperaware of their status as visual constructions.

Rolando Lopez Trochez also dips into history-drenched subject matter. His acrylic-and-oil painting "The Spontaneous One" shows a nude man flourishing a cape at a bull. This bullfight takes place within the sort of elaborate, classical-architecture-inspired framing devices you'd expect to find around a religious painting. The painting's actual frame is spare, however, focusing the viewer's attention on a few vividly colored images on the canvas itself.

In this and other paintings, Lopez Trochez's bullfighters and saints are zapped into the realm of contemporary magic realism by their placement against star-filled nocturnal skies, as if the images are floating in a dream world. Although it's nice to see so many of Lopez Trochez's paintings, their relative abundance throws this four-artist display off balance. The chief casualty is the only female artist in the show, Xenia Mejia, who exhibits just a single work (though admittedly a large one).

In an artist statement, Mejia says her mixed media on paper "Posthumous Homage" was inspired by the damage done to Honduras by both a 1998 hurricane and an ongoing crime wave. Mejia covers a gridded arrangement of 24 pieces of paper with chaotic imagery of telephone poles, buildings, streets, and screaming human faces. Gestural brush strokes and a brooding palette of browns, reds, and blacks make for a visually forceful picture. In terms of subject and style, she's so different from the other three artists it's a shame more of her work isn't included in the show.

A second Towson University exhibit, Interwoven, features Korean artist Sunghee Kim in the Asian Arts Gallery. Her installation-oriented mixed-media works comment on issues such as the role of women in Korean society. Kim is at her most effective in a series of female torsos fashioned out of earth-toned paper. Some of these sculptural figures have been tied up with hemp rope and sprinkled with shredded newspaper. Their bluntly nude appearance is reminiscent of the roughly worked sculptures made by the American artist Kiki Smith.

Kim's themes remain constant, though her mediums shift. Her show includes sculptures, vinyl dresses, bird's-nest-like constructions, and photo-and text-embossed hanging scrolls. Through her images, words, and metaphoric suggestions, we get a feeling for Korean women whose wardrobes span traditional garb and sleek modern dress. Admittedly, the viewer's understanding is aided by numerous explanatory text panels accompanying the artwork. It's worth wondering how well a few of the pieces would succeed if left entirely to their own visual devices. Even so, this is a cleverly conceived and executed body of work.

Also at Towson, the Holtzman Art Gallery displays Correspondence, a show by New York artist Tobi Kahn, whose abstract acrylic paintings often conjure up the spirits of earlier Abstract Expressionist painters. The jagged red zones against a white background of "Azce," for instance, recall the style of Clyfford Still. Yet most of the paintings also resemble landscapes observed from a great height: The coiling gold line running down the middle of an otherwise all-pale-blue surface in "Sefa" seems like a winding golden river, and the horizontal bands of blue, green, and gray in "Study for Alkah" come very close to actually representing a landscape.

Besides functioning as Ab Ex homages and landscape evocations, the esoteric titles and spare imagery of Kahn's paintings seem designed to inspire spiritual thoughts. But while much of his abstract imagery has an immediate pleasing effect, it doesn't offer much reason to linger and meditate.

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