School 33 Calculates the Possibilities of a Grid
That shape is the grid, and the organizational mind that settled upon it belongs to Helen Molesworth, curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She selected five artists--Ann Rentschler, Carol Miller Frost, Pam Snyder, Davina Grunstein, and Kass McGowan--who rely to varying degrees on gridded compositions. The mathematical rigor inherent in that artistic choice provides them with a scaffold on which to hang their ideas, and makes this otherwise disparate work hang together well on the walls of the art center's Gallery I.
Any number of artists working in the realm of geometric abstraction use gridded forms, taking advantage of the compositional neatness of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines. The artists exhibited here don't simply fall into line, however, but riff on the familiar format.
Ann Rentschler's three untitled charcoal drawings, for instance, all rely on standard-looking grids that more or less conform to the orderly and essentially anonymous format. But Rentschler uses her gridded compositions as a trellislike support for squiggly, almost calligraphic lines--gestural marks struck by the artist against the impersonal-seeming grid. In one drawing, the lines of the grid are themselves markedly curved, as if the conflict between gestural forces and received form was being won by the former. Of the artists in this show, Rentschler is the most effective in making the viewer think about how contemporary artists have dealt with issues of objective form and subjective gesture.
Pam Snyder playfully tweaks the grid in her two embroidered pieces. In "Visual Diary of a Grazer," a freehand machine embroidery on linen, a grid is sectioned off to indicate days and times; the resulting quiltlike squares are filled with small pictures of the junk food presumably consumed at these hours. "Our Little Histories" combines embroidery with water-soluble stabilizer to create the sculptural material for shaping 35 tiny chairs of various kinds and colors, which are pinned to the wall in a gridded arrangement. Both pieces use grids for personal commentary.
If Snyder's choice of material sometimes alludes to grid-reliant quilt patterns, Kass McGowan is even more direct in making quilted allusions. "Penalty" basically is a quilt, only it's pieced together from numerous DO NOT REMOVE tags of the sort found on mattresses and pillows. It's a good joke, if an obvious one, and the many tags affixed to a fabric backing make for a visually pleasing quilt.
There's no need for Carol Miller Frost to include actual horizontal and vertical lines in her two acrylic paintings, "Blush" and "Sweet Nothings," because their colorful circles are arranged in gridlike rows. The assertive colors used for the orbs and the background vary from one painting to another, serving as a reminder of how often artists who work with grids come up with slight variations within a standard format. There is some satisfaction to be had in noting the differences between the two Frost paintings, but otherwise not much reason for a viewer to linger.
The artist with the most tenuous link to the curatorial focus is Davina Grunstein, whose installation "Someplace Else" begins with a very small illuminated window inserted into a gallery wall. Beyond the pane is an intimate chamber with two alternately lit miniature dioramas: the interior of a Victorian room, which includes a window very much like the one you're looking through, and an outside scene of little pine trees like you'd see in a model-railroad landscape. Past the window is a room in which are projected slides of artificial trees, some realistic and some obviously fake.
Thematically, Grunstein seems intent on blurring the distinctions between the real and the fake. As for how this relates to the exhibit's overall curatorial focus, perhaps Grunstein is framing experience via that gridded window frame. However, it seems a bit of a theoretical stretch to include her mostly grid-free installation here.
The geometric references underlying the juried show are echoed by an unrelated exhibit occupying School 33's Gallery II. Catherine Kleeman's quilts rely on a very free interpretation of the traditional means of organizing fabric pieces. They make reference to nature, and Kleeman organizes patterns and colors in whatever way she feels will best get these references across.
In "Desert Blooms," the cotton fabric squares overlap more than they line up. Most of the squares contain a round form, evocative of flower blossoms. This is nature in a boisterously assertive mood. Clearly, Kleeman has no qualms about cutting the cloth to suit her themes, whether for the coiled shape that helps define "Solar Storm" or the horizontal and triangular strips that create "Ocean Waves."
The natural environment is captured in different media by Mark Street, whose installation "City Salvage" has a darkened gallery to itself. There's real turf under the feet of visitors as they watch a TV monitor broadcasting interview footage shot inside a Baltimore warehouse where surplus city materials are sold. A separate video projected onto a gallery wall shows footage of desolate Baltimore streets.
The genuine (and genuinely smelly) grass underfoot and the equally pungent urban remnants shown on the monitor and wall are enough to make Street's city-related concerns come alive. However, in a journalistic sense, prolonged viewing doesn't provide one with much in terms of hard information about either the salvage warehouse or the mean streets outside. It's an emotionally effective installation that would benefit from a more informational edge. It'd be a mistake to rely on a know-it-all narrator or similarly glib explanatory devices, but one comes away wishing Street could have used the interview material and cityscape shots to meatier sociological effect.
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