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In a Word

Artscape Shows Are Sparse in Title but Rich in Quality

Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Variety Show: This year's Artscape exhibits span the region and run the gamut of media, material, and presentational style.

Photo courtesy Jack Livingston

Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston
Photo courtesy Jack Livingston

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 7/18/2001

Floor, Speak, Motor, Monument, Build, Child, Wildflower, Box and Roll

Maryland Institute, College of Art's Decker Gallery (Mount Royal Station) through Aug. 4

This year's Artscape consisted of thematic group exhibits so clearly defined that they're encapsulated by single-word titles. It's a sensible way to organize hundreds of artworks at the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) and several off-site venues. Because most of the shows are up for at least a couple more weeks, you'll have plenty of time to see floor-mounted art at MICA, floral art at School 33 Art Center, child-friendly art at Maryland Art Place, and so on.

After wearing out a lot of shoe leather seeing it all, you're apt to conclude Artscape 2001 was better planned than many past editions of the 20-year-old fest. Gone are the thesis-driven shows that sometimes hit and sometimes missed. Also gone are the democratically motivated but consequently sprawling mega-exhibits whose only point was to squeeze as many artists and mediums as possible into the available gallery space. Instead, this year's starkly named shows are mass-audience-friendly, without being condescending about it. All the artists within a particular show respond in their own idiosyncratic ways to the same generally stated subject.

For conceptual cleverness, all the shows must yield the floor to Floor, which covers, yes, the floor of MICA's Decker Gallery. Being so conditioned to seeing art installed on the walls, it's a tad disorienting to see everything down below (though a few pieces also extend up onto wall space). You might first think it's a gimmick, but the gambit does force you to consider how art is usually presented. There's also the question of gallery etiquette; some pieces amount to prone cloth paintings and readily accommodate pedestrian traffic, while others incorporate materials or shapes that make it prudent to step around rather than on them. Watch your step, and watch where your neighbors step. Who's considerate and who's a clod? And even if it seems OK to tread on a piece, is this any way to express admiration?

Some of the Floor pieces might work as well on a wall, but most seem to have been conceived with the horizontal surface in mind. Nude female figures made out of crocheted yarn emerge from a background that evokes a marsh in Ming-Yi Sung's "Creation of the World." Literally earthier in nature, Phyllis Audrey Wilson's "Sweet Dreams" features a prone human body formed by a pile of wood chips. The gravel, evergreen leaves, and wildflowers surrounding this figure make for a very effective forest floor.

If such earthy associations are what one expects from a ground-based show, Susan Lambert and Jennifer Shaw's "Gum Wrappers" provides a witty surprise. Joining silver-hued wrappers together to form a rectangle, these artists rigorously made a shiny little carpet out of "material" that's usually randomly tossed on the floor.

Speak, in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery, certainly makes enough noise to live up to its title. Many pieces rely on headphones through which you can listen to artist-made tapes; others use videos full of insistent voices and noises, making for a thematically appropriate overlapping of sounds.

Paintings and photographs in this show also comment--silently--on the aural bombardment to which we're subjected daily. Nick Barna's color photograph "Sometimes Words Just Get in the Way" is a documentary shot of a billboard on which those very words are written. Rawn Martin's painting "To Fight Is a Radical Instinct . . ." presents an image of a boxer with an on-canvas text about male aggression. Speak boasts some other image-and-text combinations, but considering how important this strategy is in the contemporary art world, the exhibit could use even more painted words on canvas.

In MICA's Pinkard Gallery, Motor gathers nifty motorized artworks. One of the most amusing is Christian Dennstadt's "Washboard Slim," in which pressing two buttons activates spoon "hands" that strum a metal figure's broiler-pan chest; a third button sets its spoked wheel head turning. If the artists in this show have anything in common, it's a tendency to take junk and recycle it into new "life" forms via a boost from electricity.

Along the Mount Royal Avenue median strip, Monument offers a few striking sculptures constructed in a monument-minded manner. The best is Rodney Carroll's "Saint Patrick," whose classically inspired cement column is topped with several gracefully coiling metal arcs. Carroll's sculpture dramatically combines straight and curved forms, while also commenting upon the surrounding neighborhood's mix of classical and modern buildings.

Architecture also factors into Build, sited in the City Hall Courtyard Galleries. Architectural drawings and models predominate here; some are for actual projects, others are more whimsical. Among local projects represented, you can see how the monstrosity known as the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel began life as a drawing on a napkin.

Besides showcasing a mix of city monuments and new projects, Build acknowledges what has been lost. Jaimie Beach has 16 haunting color photos of abandoned buildings, and Greg Fletcher's oil painting "Arched Facade, Light Street, Old Miner's Trust" highlights the demolition of yet another Redwood Street structure.

Despite such interesting elements, Build is the one failure among this year's Artscape shows, due to an overcrowded installation and some curious decisions about what goes where. Not only are works jammed up against other work, but in a few instances conceptual sketches of buildings and the corresponding three-dimensional model are installed on opposite sides of the City Hall rotunda.

Much more beautifully installed is Child at Maryland Art Place. Conceived in hopes of attracting the tykes at nearby Port Discovery, it's a show of art that's child-friendly without being dumbed-down. Jill Lion's stone sculptures of animals are cute but not cloying, and Ed Bisese's papier-mâché "Guinea Pigs" cluster on a cedar-chip-coated floor whose pungent odor conjures up a Proustian rush of memories both happy and sad for anybody who ever had to clean up after such pets. Other artists in this show, like D.S. Bakker with his illuminated, mixed-media mini-environments, transport kids and their adult minders on exotic journeys.

Sited indoors (at School 33 Art Center) but all about the outdoors, Wildflower is best when it's most literal-minded. Andrea Haffner enshrines real milkweed and mimosa leaves in glass boxes mounted on the wall, as if this were a natural-history museum. Amy Jones includes actual flowers in the pulpy mix that makes up her handmade paper artwork. Several other artists also deal with real natural fragments, but the show should have pushed further and really had a field day. As is, you'll find enough wildflower-related paintings and mixed-media artwork to satisfy most natural urges. Especially nice is Edward Brown III's charcoal drawing "Grass," whose arcing strokes suggest how blades of grass can assert themselves when left unmowed.

Villa Julie College Gallery is itself a white cube, so it's an apt setting for Box, which offers an assortment of art shaped like or alluding to boxes. Having some fun with the austere norms of minimalist sculpture, Michael Krumenacker's "No Title/Shingled Cube" is covered with rough-textured roofing shingles.

Roll, at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery, is an interesting if uneven show in which strips of 35mm slide film have been installed in light boxes. Mark Melonas is among those taking advantage of the narrative possibilities of photo sequences: His "The Right Track; Arrival" shows a man walking along railroad tracks toward and then away from us. Other photographers in the show deal more with patterning and abstractions. You have to pull up close to the light boxes to make out details in these strips of film. That's why this intimate exhibit seems lost in the lofty gallery. But the show, like Artscape's exhibits as a whole, merits a look.

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