Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Gallery Neptune: Hung up on identity issues

Exhibit asks and answers questions about identity

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For Elyse Harrison, it began with paper dolls.

The owner of Bethesda’s Gallery Neptune is a grownup, of course — she grew up in Silver Spring — but the idea of ‘‘putting on identities” through art fascinates her.

‘‘I’m an artist, also,” she says. ‘‘Some years ago, I had done a few big paintings based on paper doll clothes.”

She says she liked the way the dolls were always able to assume the attitudes and activities their paper wardrobe suggested.

‘‘It inspired me to think about creating an exhibit that was all about identity,” she explains. ‘‘What do we ‘attach’ to ourselves to change ourselves?”

By asking — and answering — questions about identity, Harrison and a handful of artists came up with ‘‘See What You Want to See,” the exhibit on display at Gallery Neptune through Feb. 2.

‘‘It’s absolutely an invitation,” she says of the exhibit, which features works by established artists Mark Behme, Ed Bisese and Elaine Langerman along with first-time exhibitor Violetta Manavis. ‘‘All art exhibits ask you to ‘see what you want to see.’ We look at life that way!”

Ed Bisese wasn’t sure how he looked at life, at least the part of his life that was dedicated to art.

‘‘The theme started out as ‘paper dolls as a way to explore identity and imagery,’” the College Park artist explains. ‘‘When it switched to ‘identity,’ I had a moment of crisis.”

A eureka moment followed. Identity, Bisese concluded, is a big part of his philosophy of painting.

‘‘I think the work I do revolves around identity,” he says. ‘‘I hadn’t see it that way before.”

What he did see — always — was that as an artist he invites viewers to see what they want to see.

‘‘In the world of creating meaning, no one is omniscient,” he notes. ‘‘Any response to my work is based on the experience [of the viewer].”

Mark Behme agrees. In fact, the Silver Spring artist fully expects people to come to his work with their own perspectives.

‘‘Everybody will see things differently,” he says, ‘‘and interpret them differently.”

Behme works in mixed media — ‘‘a painterly wood carver” is how he describes himself – and uses art to share the workings of his mind with others.

‘‘To express the inner landscape,” he says, ‘‘you have to use images people can latch on to. It’s not abstraction for its own purposes.”

Indeed, the abstraction Behme utilizes is organic, necessitated by the actual physical efforts of the artist.

‘‘Basically, I’m kind of a hermit type person,” he admits. ‘‘The creation of my work, the wood carving, takes so long to do. I don’t want to know at the beginning where I’m going to be three months down the road.

‘‘If I did, I’d just be a technician.”

But every artist is, in a sense, a technician — and a translator, too. For Behme, it’s about celebrating the ‘‘differently wired mind” he has by sharing ‘‘my dream logic of imagery.

‘‘All of my stuff has a certain amount of interactivity to it,” he adds. ‘‘And all of my work has duplicity, layers of meaning that I find exciting.”

Harrison says those layers of meaning send messages to those who view the artwork.

‘‘Sometimes they say things the artist had no intention of saying,” she muses. ‘‘It’s about creating the opportunity for the art to become a mirror to whomever is looking at it.”

A mirror in which viewers see what they want to see, yes, but not without the intervening hand of the artist.

‘‘I think I’ve really trained my mind to be receptive to things,” Behme says. ‘‘And I have left open the possibility for other events, for the work to take on quite a bit of twists and turns for the viewer.

‘‘Elyse has chosen me and the other artists in the show because we love those open-ended possibilities.”

‘‘See What You Want to See” is at Gallery Neptune, 4901 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, through Feb. 2. Gallery hours are noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday or by appointment. Call 301-718-0809 or