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Abstract Expressions

The New Karl Connolly Highlights School 33 Group Show

Word Picture: A detail of Pamela Snyder Negrinís embroidery "What I Dreamed When I was Five"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/12/2001

Studio Artists Biennial 2001 and Paintings by Joe Werner

Joe Werner

School 33 Art Center through Sept. 29

If you're familiar with Karl Connolly's paintings, his latest work is guaranteed to make you do a double take. Connolly made his name with classically conceived figures painted with enough technical finesse and surface polish to recall the calm style of an Old Master. However, his backing landscapes conveyed an ominously near-barren feeling, and the figurative groupings and actions possessed a surreal quality.

In recent years, Connolly largely dispensed with the overt art-historical references in his work and has made paintings in which modern-looking figures floated against vacantly white pictorial space. He also distorted some figures until their bodies were stretched to grotesque extremes. It was as if he'd decided to literally stretch himself as an artist, testing different figurative possibilities.

Even an awareness of that exploratory quality doesn't quite prepare one for the paintings he's showing in the Studio Artists Biennial 2001 at the School 33 Art Center. It is a break so radical that I initially thought the gallery checklist must be mistaken in ascribing these paintings to Karl Connolly. This figurative artist has gone abstract--and with a colorful vengeance.

It helps to first read an artist's statement, in which Connolly explains the time-consuming process that took him from representation to abstraction. Then look at three very small oil paintings in a series titled "Herd," which are based on computer-manipulated photographs of cattle in a pastoral setting. You can still make out blurry remnants of the original photographic imagery, but figurative lines have been stretched into vertical lines and the colors made more vivid and less true to nature. The artist tries out compositional possibilities with computer-doctored photos, but then does these little painterly studies in a standard oil-laden, brush-to-canvas manner.

Finally, look at three large oil paintings in which virtually all figurative traces have disappeared. Two are complete abstractions, made up of closely spaced, vibrantly hued vertical lines. Although the color range includes enough shades of green to remind you of the inspirational greenery, anybody looking at these paintings without the artist's statement in mind would have no way of knowing their origins.

Although the bright colors and confident brushwork make for immediately appealing paintings, you have to wonder if it's worthwhile for the artist to go through that whole photo-to-painting process when the end result looks like the so-called stripe paintings Gene Davis was making without any high-tech fuss 40 years ago. It'll be interesting to see what Connolly does with his stripes next or, indeed, if he changes his stripes completely.

If Connolly's protean transformation is this biennial's attention-grabber, the other artists in the show also make deserved claims on your attention. Maybe there's something in the air at School 33, but it seems as though some of the most interesting of these artists also explore the possibilities of abstract painting.

Claudia McDonough relies on shaped canvases that are either circular or rectangular in shape. They're also convex, meaning they push out from the wall in a way that seems more suitable to sculpture than traditional painting. She covers the surfaces with near-monochromatic fields of color and simple geometric designs. Lots of abstract painters ranging have worked with shaped canvases, but this is such an expansive (pun intended) area that there's room for McDonough's quirky oil paintings too.

Two other abstract artists, Scott Thorp and Terry Thompson, are more interested in how loosely arranged, curvilinear shapes can give a semblance of pictorial structure to their oil paintings. Thompson relies on the interplay between coiling black lines and looser washes of subdued colors; Thorp uses a honeycomb of linked lines and more assertive colors. These paintings are skillfully composed, if less than compelling.

More representational but hardly straightforward work is offered by Carolyn Case, whose "Fire Spot" series of oil paintings successfully emulate the appearance of knotty, charred wooden boards (why she'd want to do so is an open question), and Kenneth Hilker, whose oil paintings manage to maintain a brooding mood while testing various options for portraying landscape, sky, and a few lonely trees. Sonia Friedman has relatively conventional still-life paintings that make her seem like a lonely realist amid the other studio artists.

Among those working in other media, Pamela Snyder Negrin's dream-oriented texts are embroidered on hanging linen and cotton sheets. Although Negrin's stories are engaging, her method doesn't offer any inherent advantage over type on a page.

John Ellsberry displays a stained-glass tile mosaic of Baltimore's Washington Monument and illuminated stained glass, wood, and masonite constructions that light up the outlined forms of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, Shot Tower, and Mount Vernon Square. Even if Ellsberry weren't a City Paper contributing artist, as a Baltimorean, I'd smile at his Monumental City-celebrating art.

And Kevin Wolff has a video installation whose emphasis on endlessly repeated movement--fuzzy people walking around in an eternal blur, for instance --makes its point and then, not surprisingly, keeps doing so over and over again.

In a separate exhibit at School 33, the painter Joe Werner combines recurring images of a Mount Fuji-like Japanese landscape, cats, houses, people, hats, fish, and fragmentary texts and isolated words. There are some eye-catching pictorial juxtapositions and enjoyable Pop Art themes percolating here, but the paintings don't seem resolved on either a compositional or thematic level. Instead, things float around in an arbitrary fashion. This personal iconography no doubt has great meaning for the artist, but I felt abandoned on the slopes of Mount Fuji.

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