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Almost Ripe

Local Artists Begin to Mature

John McGarity’s mixed-media paintings, such as this untitled 1997 work, are disquieting but derivative.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/2/1998

John McGarity, Tatiana Palnitska, and Peter Bruun

Gomez Gallery through Sept. 13

John McGarity's brooding mixed-media paintings hold your attention even before you decipher their ominous and aggressive content. Like the other two young artists with whom he's sharing an exhibit at the Gomez Gallery, he's already accomplished--yet he still needs to go a bit further in developing a more personal artistic identity.

Because McGarity's spare imagery is partly obscured within his generally dark-hued palette, you initially approach his paintings as abstract works. You'll note how the surface of the canvas is raised by applying layers of paper to it; similarly, the paint is laid on so thickly in places that the surface is like a wrinkled and ridged skin. He also tends to divide a pictorial composition into several principal zones of color, so you're inclined to think in formal terms.

In "When Foes Fall," you'll first notice peeling bits of applied paper, fields of melting and running colors, and painted grids and orbs. It's as if his materials and his methods are having a tug of war before your eyes. Linger a bit and more representational images become apparent. There are several small drawings of airplanes in one section of the painting, and another section presents several small photographic images of a human figure posed against an archery target. Although the subject matter never becomes more specific than that, a martial mood is established.

Similar existential nastiness can be seen in an untitled painting dominated by a black-cloaked man with a smudged face who holds a gun in his hand. Adding to the puzzle of his personality is a black shoe on one foot; the other foot is bare. Also disquieting is that the words "once I painted a rat's ass" appear on the canvas, and, indeed, there is a painted image of a rat nearby.

McGarity would seem to have the technical and imagistic versatility needed to become a first-rate painter, but at this point his work seems baldly derivative of the German artist Anselm Kiefer. McGarity's reliance on applied materials, tendency to use a gray-black palette, crinkled- and charred-looking surfaces, reliance on totemic images such as a looming black column in one painting, and recurring imagery that includes railroad tracks all betray Kiefer's influence.

It's understandable that the philosophical and literal weightiness of Kiefer's paintings would exert such a pull on a young artist. McGarity, who graduated from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in 1992, has plenty of time to absorb such influences and come up with something more distinctively his own.

Sharing the gallery with him is Tatiana Palnitska, a Russian-born artist now residing in Annapolis. Her exhibited photographic series, A Walk Around My Town, features tightly cropped images of buildings in which the emphasis is on simple, brightly hued geometric forms.

Although seeing a blue building with red window frames certainly catches your eye, many other photographers have treated architecture in a similar fashion. Palnitska's current series has been carefully composed and she makes a bid for originality by streaking her photos with black lines, but she still needs to come up with something uniquely her own.

Peter Bruun, who teaches art at Villa Julie College and until recently directed its gallery, has a series of pastel and charcoal abstract drawings. An irregularly sided, solidly colored form is at the center of each drawing; that centered form is surrounded by paper that would be blank if it weren't for the ghostly presence of pale lines and echoes of color.

There is some pleasure to be had noting the variations within a relatively fixed format in this series, but these drawings have more intellectual than visceral appeal. There's obviously nothing wrong with heady art, but Bruun's accompanying artist's statement leads you to expect more from these drawings.

"Though not at all evident in the final product, the abstract drawings on display are derived from self-portraiture; for years, I have begun all my work by looking at my face in the mirror and making marks in response to what I see," Bruun writes. What's missing from these drawings is any real sense of how an artist grapples with issues of self-identity and self-depiction. Far from being animated by that quest, these drawings are too tamely academic.

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