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In With the Old

A Rare Retrospective at School 33

Coppin State art-department founder Luke Shaw (whose "Chinese Landscape IV" hangs on the wall) and Bowie State professor E. Clark Mester Jr. (the woodcarving "Rhythm") are among the featured artists in School 33's A Visual Legacy.
"Chester," acrylic on clay, by Ernest Satchell

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/20/2002

A Visual Legacy: The Art of Maryland's Historically Black Colleges and Universities

works on paper by Nicole Andrews Brandes

an installation by Megan Pahmier

School 33 Art Center through March 9

Almost every exhibit at the School 33 Art Center features the Art of the Moment. Indeed, in many of the mixed-media and installation-oriented shows there, the components have been assembled for the first time. That's why it's unusual to see a decades-old realistic sculpture such as the late James Lewis' 1947 cast-bronze "Jacqueline" as part of an exhibit there.

But that work speaks directly to what School 33's current show is all about. Curated by photographer Linda Day Clark, a professor at Coppin State College, A Visual Legacy: The Art of Maryland's Historically Black Colleges and Universities features an array of artwork by professors and students, most of them African-American, affiliated with Coppin, Morgan State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. There is more art on display than is usually the case at School 33, where spare gallery installations are the norm. But the relative crowding is unavoidable considering how many media, generations, and institutions are represented.

Of the various media on display, it is sculpture that makes the strongest impression, in part because you can gauge how sculptors responded to different currents in late 20th-century art. Lewis' two exhibited bronze figurative sculptures from the 1940s and '50s remain firmly within the classical style, implicitly making a statement about African-American artists and their subjects having a place within the fine-arts tradition. Jim Crow laws extended to the art world too, and the late Morgan State professor was among those seeking to foster the presence of African-American artists both on campus and off. Meanwhile, Ernest Satchell is a sculptural realist working in a more folkloric style; his "Chester" (1990) is a life-sized painted clay figure sitting on a paint-splattered wood bench, a casually dressed old guy smoking a corncob pipe.

Other sculptors abstract the figure, and some do away with the figure altogether. E. Clark Mester Jr.'s undated "Lady Di: The Birth of Venus Revisited" is beautifully carved from black walnut; its curves and jutting forms have feminine associations, and its openings echo the way Henry Moore made positive use out of negative space. The female figure makes itself felt in the finest artwork in the whole show, an untitled 1991 ceramic sculpture by Carol Grant. Though armless and headless, this upright form has curves in the right feminine places. The ceramic surface has a pale brownish coloration and linear incisions that make it resemble tree bark. This reinforces the sense that you're looking at either an archaic sculpture or a tree trunk that somebody would have been inclined to worship a few thousand years ago.

Among other media, the paintings, prints, and drawings are less impressive. Photography makes a good showing, with examples including the five black-and-white photographs in Carey Beth Cryor's "Rites of Passage" series (circa 1978), which track a woman's passage from pregnancy to delivery. Also in the documentary vein, two black-and-white shots from Ken Royster's 1999 "Baptism" series demonstrate the literally and figuratively immersive quality of a full-body baptism.

School 33's Gallery II space hosts three visually underwhelming mixed-media series by Nicole Andrews Brandes', dealing with how women have been historically represented. In "The Kissing Series," small cardboard-mounted figurative drawings create a lineup installed on eye-level shelving. Though schematically drawn, the mostly female figures betray their source in 1930s film stills, such as James Cagney slamming a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in 1931's Public Enemy.

The second series, "Teen Book," is a collaboration with Kate Haug in which dating couples, cars, and such are drawn on five large sheets of paper. The images, surrounded by a lot of blank paper, don't offer much visual appeal or food for thought. The third series, "Soviet Designs," entails Constructivist-style collages. Brandes incorporates images of women in with the colored squares, as if to remind you that female artists also participated in a movement that standard art histories record as male-dominated. It is a worthwhile polemic, but Brandes' own collages and maquettes are much more roughly executed than the pristine and pure abstractions she is riffing on.

School 33's Installation Space contains a hands-on installation by Megan Pahmier, who got the idea while volunteering at the Maryland School for the Blind. Close your eyes and let your hands run over the sequins, beads, deflated balloons, fabric, and raised ceramic surfaces arranged on wall-hung panels--which, fortunately for sighted visitors, look swell as mixed-medium abstract pictures too.

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