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Reality Check

Artists Imagine Their Own Worlds at MAP

Meagan Shein's "Lachrymal Wall III" is among the Invented Objects at Maryland Art Place.
Jules Olitski's "Everglade Solstice" is part of the landscapes show at C. Grimaldis Gallery.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/27/2001

Invented Objects Imagined Spaces and Landscapes Into Art

Maryland Art Place through July 7

Artists are the true masters of the universe. They're free to depict the world around them with painstaking exactitude, reshape it to suit their fancy, or make up a new world from scratch. That last impulse drives the artwork included in the current exhibit at Maryland Art Place, Invented Objects Imagined Spaces. As J. Susan Isaacs puts it in her curatorial statement: "In each work, the artist has imagined a universe in which invented objects or forms reside."

The 14 artists included in the show work in various mediums and styles, but some similarities draw them together. For starters, much of the creation has been limited to two dimensions--there's little sculpture or assemblage-oriented work here (in other words, few invented objects that are actual objects). Also, a viewer soon learns that repetition is often the true mother of invention--many of the artists build their works from the foundation of a single, recognizable shape.

Meagan Shein, one of the few artists in the show who's inventing in 3-D, presents two sculptural installations made of waxed tissue paper, bones, and thread. The paper has been shaped into forms that resemble lanterns; they contain bones rather than bulbs and are suspended from the ceiling via threads so thin that it seems as though the forms are floating on their own. In "Lachrymal Wall III," teardrop-shaped sacs flow from the ceiling to the floor. The piece hangs flush with a wall, but Shein's second piece, "Niobiad," has gourd-shaped forms suspended in a more random way above quite a bit of gallery floor. The forms cast shadows that emphasize the extent to which a site-specific piece alters the environment where it's installed.

Shein's work method relies on creating a resonant form and then repeating it; all those tears in the one piece and gourds in the other serve as her building blocks. Viewers will pick up on this notion as they go through the exhibit, because however idiosyncratic some of the invented forms, their makers often assemble the forms in a rigorously methodical way. Their consistency leads to beautiful symmetry. Imaginations may run wild, but the worlds that spring from those visions are logically constructed.

Ellen Burchenal, for instance, has built her career on the use of lozenge shapes. Her art in Invented Objects includes charcoal and pastel drawings on paper, in which you can sense the working out of the geometric possibilities of grouping lozenges, and acrylic paintings on wood shaped like lozenges. This reliance on oval forms could make Burchenal's work seem rigidly repetitious, but she's able to avoid that trap in two ways: Her lozenges are arranged in umpteen different groupings, and her palette is brightly varied.

Other artists in the show also favor geometric abstraction. Patrice Kehoe's small mixed-media paintings rely on rings and other shapes that define the pictorial space without coalescing into actual objects to which we could readily attach names; Michael Weiss uses arcing and circular lines to define and breathe life into his oil paintings. Rob Douglas' acrylic painting "Numina I" is a complete abstraction that carves up the pictorial space into several zones. He avoids being simply schematic by using enough squiggly shapes and color variations to make for a more complex surface. The painting's glossy sheen accentuates its visual richness. On its own, it is not a particularly impressive work, but within the curatorial context it hits some of the right buttons.

Some artists edge toward more realistic representation. Steven Cushner has two acrylic paintings, "Trees" and "Two Trees," in which the geometric abstraction is directly related to the upright stance and branching nature of trees. This is figuration reduced to its geometric essentials. In Georgia Deal's etchings and monotypes, the silhouetted forms of things such as a birdcage, a person eating, and a dancing couple possess the generic quality of catalog illustrations. The interest in her work comes from the juxtapositions. Individual images are ordinary and even banal, but there is inventiveness in how they're lined up across the prints.

If Deal is looking for thought-provoking ways to mix realistic images, Alida Fish's digitally altered photographs fuse imagery and deliberately confuse viewers. Her "Walking with Pygmalion" series melds female models and classical sculptures. Look at a limb and you'll see that part of it is human flesh and part of it is marble--it's not always easy to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. These women are invented objects that blur distinctions between reality and its traditional representation.

The real, tangible world makes only occasional appearances in Invented Objects. To get more solidly grounded, check out the painting exhibit Landscapes into Art at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, which features the work of 10 artists: David Brewster, Annegerd Bunting, Henry Coe, Karl Connolly, Robert Dash, Jane Freilicher, Eugene Leake, Herman Maril, Raoul Middleman, and Jules Olitski.

Even here, though, not every image is a straightforward representation of reality; some artists in the Grimaldis show use highly expressive brushwork, and a few venture into nature-evocative abstraction. At the risk of stating the obvious, two artists may see a similar landscape and respond in very different ways; tracking their subjective visions creates great pleasure for the viewer.

Among the most expressively painted works in the show is Middleman's "Jetty Beach," in which the tidal pools and rocks lie below a vigorously dark sky. There are a few people here, but they're no more than suggestive little spots of color on the beach. Nature is primal and dominant, and we're just small creatures taking up a bit of space. If Middleman's seashore scene is surging with energy, things are much more subdued in Maril's "The Great Beach." This calm and spare painting offers the ocean as a slice of blue, the sky as a pinkish zone, a few green spikes denoting sand-dune vegetation, and several stick figures representing the human race.

A reductive sensibility also works to the advantage of Connolly, whose large painting "Sweep" depicts a small stretch of a curving road. The sky and road surface are both gray; a yellow line down the middle of the road and a red-and-white cautionary sign planted next to it are intended to prevent accidents. The near-empty scene feels quietly ominous. Nothing awful is depicted, but the composition prompts you to conjure up awful hypothetical scenarios. The mental landscape is downright dangerous here.

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