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Below the Beltway

Group Show Examines The Suburbs' Place In The City's Visual Art World

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/27/2007

Suburbia Redefined: Intersections of Urban and Rural

At the Towson Framing Gallery through July 22

Harsh but true--downtown Towson doesn't immediately spring to mind as a local hot spot for fine art. With the exception of galleries at nearby Towson University and Goucher College, central Towson has long lacked a solid art presence beyond framers, private photography studios, and other suburban sofa-matching essentials. The Towson Arts Collective, a group dedicated to "the growth of greater Towson's art community" through student/professional artist interaction, is looking to redress Baltimore County's status as an art nonentity.

Suburbia Redefined: Intersections of Urban and Rural is the group's all-too-appropriately themed opening sally, featuring 32 artists selected by innovative photographer Connie Imboden and Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts' visual arts coordinator Gary Kachadourian. Hung in the Towson Framing Gallery's cool, cavernous basement, the show is a mixed bag of works both local and national, professional and amateur, abstract and representational.

Sandra Parra's oil portraits are a standout, attracting the eye with their monumental size and lush, oversaturated colors. Combining elements of 1950s pinup glamour with 21st-century suburban ennui, "Chimera #2" and "Chimera #3" depict a decidedly Baltimorean take on the girl-next-door, who is covered in tattoos, rocking a feather boa, and draped luxuriously over lawn chairs. There's an intriguing smoothness to Parra's brushwork, and the images, though clearly posed, have a candid feel. Painter Rachel Bone, whose Kozyndan-esque work was recently featured in the New American Painting spring issue, uses gouache to create rich, opaque tones reminiscent of animation cels. "Milking Time" is a delightfully bizarre image of a pigeon-toed, apron-clad housewife ministering to a flock of milk cartons. Bone is definitely an artist to watch.

Schroeder Cherry's acrylic/mixed-media on wood pieces are meant to illustrate the unique cultural challenges faced by African-Americans migrating to the suburbs. Drawing inspiration from folk art, the works feature household detritus--Mardi Gras beads, house keys, mirrors--collaged onto images of black men in suits carrying watermelons. The overall effect is surreal and perplexing, with images placed in a seemingly haphazard manner, and chunks of broken mirrors sewn together like wounds.

Leslie Hirst's tiny oil-on-wood paintings play intriguingly on the natural characteristics of unpolished, untainted wood. Drawn on cross-sections of trees and branches, Hirst's images of prefab suburban dwellings follow the grain and rings of her canvas, playing on the intersection between nature and artifice. "Neighbors" is an endless spiral of suburban homes, elegant in execution, but disturbing in its ability to evoke the homogenization of how we live.

Michael Robinson's "Queer Boy Crossing" is a standout mixed-media piece, dealing with the social alienation and abuse that the artist experienced growing up homosexual in a suburban neighborhood. Shards of glass and broken tail-lights surround adolescent photographs of Robinson, and stitched letters relate haunting tales of exploitation and confusion: "climbing in and out of parked cars letting men touch me and then driving back home as if nothing has changed." The overall effect is a cutting, raw look at suburbia's tendency to shun or ignore those who deviate from the established norm.

Baltimore-based installation artist Anne Chan's "Farm" and "Towers" are disappointingly flat archival digital photographs of an installation that looks like it was probably fascinating. Chan works with business cards, slotting them together like jigsaw pieces to create architectural structures. Her actual installation would have been far more welcome than these photographs. The show consists wholly of wall-mounted pieces--a shame considering the wide expanses of floor space available in this venue.

The third room of Suburbia Redefined is largely devoted to photography that explores urban blight and decay, and works that directly reference such photography. Sara Baicich's "Riverbed Creatures" portrays a sunken wreck of a shopping cart, almost skeletal against the muddy sludge of the river. Philadelphia-based artist Mike Geno obsessively documents his urban commute to and from work, then creates charcoal drawings faithfully based on the photographs he's taken throughout the day. Though the drawings themselves are technically accomplished, the most interesting aspect of Geno's "Daily Commute" series is the creative presentation--the mats used to frame each drawing come in varying shades of gray, selected to correspond to the level of daylight present when Geno took each photograph. This strategy makes the monochromatic drawings stand out far more than they would otherwise.

The Towson Arts Collective still has a long way to go if it is truly invested in putting Towson on the local art map. While the current space is large enough to accommodate huge, thematically appropriate shows like Suburbia Redefined, and two of the gallery's rooms are nicely appointed, the largest display area has an unfortunate grandma's basement feel, and you must negotiate around various pieces of furniture and clutter to view the art. Still, if the space can maintain the quality of work seen in this show, it's on the right track.

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