Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Painting awards exhibit offers few highlights

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Photo courtesy of Bethesda Urban Partnership
The true subject of Matthew Klos’ ‘‘Tracing Pine” is not the simple interior view, but a masterful orchestration of color and light. Klos was the top winner in the painting awards.
Seven artists were named early this month as finalists in the 2007 Bethesda Painting Awards. As Catriona Fraser is the non-voting chair of this regional competition, now in its third year, work by the finalists is on view at the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda.

There’s something disconcerting about this exhibit, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. Upon entering the gallery, an unusual absence of the human figure as subject is noticeable, although more than half of the work is representational. And, despite the variety of approaches represented, I found myself wondering if it’s because painting is losing ground among younger emerging artists (who tend to apply to competitions of this kind), or whether there’s some other reason why little here seems all that exciting.

Perhaps it’s because there’s a sense of repetition, with familiar names reappearing. With a $10,000 cash prize awarded to the first-place winner, and $2,000, and $1,000 respectively for second- and third-place, and with so much that is interesting in painting going on in the region, the competition results are an odd mix.

Among the exhibitors, first-place winner Matthew Klos is undoubtedly the ‘‘best in show.” Klos is truly a painter; his work is outstanding for his delicate handling of oil paint, and his exquisite control of nuances of light — the virtual ‘‘subject” of his otherwise rather ordinary views of studio or bedroom interiors. Viewers might indeed wonder about Klos’ choice of motif, but it is this painter’s ability to transcend subject with a greater emphasis on abstract values of color and form that makes him the strongest artist in the group.

In the two views of the studio sink, for example, one in daylight and the other with the fluorescent light turned on, the viewer is less aware of the simple objects represented than of the color and the juxtaposition of complementaries. In ‘‘Red Light, Green Light,” the green table beneath the sink contrasts sharply under the harsh fluorescent lamp with the red trashcan and cabinets. And complementaries provide the interest in Klos’ ‘‘Tracing Pine,” where a bright orange area on the floor is seen against a deeply saturated blue crate in the foreground, almost incidentally representing the light pouring in through the window that dominates the composition.

Finally, Klos’ tiny canvas ‘‘American Icon,” of no more than about 8 by 10 inches, is very nearly abstract. A view through a window at night painted in dull grays and browns and illuminated by dots of night lights, is reminiscent of Whistler, who might be seen as an important influence, or at least a guiding spirit of this still very young painter.

Second-place winner Cara Ober is less compelling. Her mixed media work on canvas combines recognizable imagery with words and abstract passages of painted surface. Four of her works from what she titles the ‘‘Meshuggeneh Series” (that is, mixed up or crazy, for those unfamiliar with the Yiddish word) are very small format on heavy paper. Each is ‘‘untitled” from the series, with one image singled out — a baseball, a bird, a fishing cat — that emerges from the combination of things on the surface. But the effect is less than it might be. I kept thinking about David Wallace’s small compositions at Gallery Neptune earlier this year that similarly combine words, images and passages of paint, but with a far more intelligent and intriguing result.

In the end, Ober’s work seems pretentious. It feels as though it’s supposed to mean something profound, but fails to convey much of interest.

Even worse in this context are the drip paintings of Maggie Michaels, the competition’s third-place winner. This artist, also in her early 30s, was featured in the Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards competition last year. Long streams of bright latex paint that build up on the surface in three-dimensional forms, mixed with veils of ink and enamel, appear to recall Abstract Expressionist or even Color Field art of the 1950s and ’60s. But an underlying strength of composition, so essential in work like this, is missing here.

A large composition by Phyllis Plattner dominates the center of the gallery with the usual fare from this artist who persists in recreating Italian Renaissance altarpieces with woolen Zapatista dolls replacing the religious figures. Working in oil and gold leaf on multiple panels, the idea, which apparently occurred to the artist because she has lived in Tuscany and in Chiapas, Mexico, is trite and even potentially offensive. Although they are supposed to explore the ‘‘contrasting sensibilities of these two disparate cultures,” these compositions seem tiresome at best.

On the other hand, the ink paintings (or more accurately, drawings) of Fiona Ross, are certainly among the most visually attractive in the exhibit. Painstakingly drawn with sumi ink on two different kinds of Japanese paper, these works are most interesting for their delicate technique and the extraordinary quality of the ink on the paper itself. I was most interested in the effect created in ‘‘Lughnasa” (the title may refer to the ancient Irish summer festival of Lugh), where the black ink appears to shine a golden color as it covers the folds in the heavy paper that buckles up like a scarf or a mountain landscape. Ross’ drawings are comprised of intricate links of circles and tiny forms that connote an organic feeling of growth. The figures also are reminiscent of bubbles, creating a sense of lightness and movement. ‘‘Float” forms an egg shape that also rises up toward the viewer three-dimensionally. ‘‘Apotropaia, #2,” a title that refers to things protective against evil, has two areas of forms that repel each other. These are fine works, but are they paintings?