Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007

A cloak of many colors: MC art faculty

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Courtesy of the artist
Mary Staley’s visionary photos of sky and water convey ideas of the preciousness of both. Not political, but spiritual in feeling, these photos are among the best in the exhibit.
A healthy diversity of styles and approaches among faculty from all four of Montgomery College’s art programs is on view in ‘‘Unity in Diversity” at the Glenview Mansion Art Gallery in Rockville. Twenty-three artists are represented in this major group exhibition of more than 70 objects, curated by Virginia Mecklenburg, Senior Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

With the current focus on art as politics — as seen in the Trawick Prize finalists at Bethesda’s Creative Partners Gallery — this exhibit proves the plurality of the contemporary art scene, even in a regional context. While the styles and interests of these artists, all full-time studio faculty, vary greatly, an across the board aesthetic basis to their work unites them. In a few cases, a political meaning can be extrapolated. After all, if, like Mary Staley, you make photos of the sky and the water, you are, ipso facto, making environmentalist commentary.

These are strange transitional times in the art world. But it is rewarding to see work of consistently high quality and serious intent. This is art that matters for reasons that are not outside of it, but are instead intrinsic to the work itself.

If I were handing out top prizes, they would go to Mary Staley and Joe Kabriel. The former’s four photographs in this exhibit are extraordinarily sensitive digital compositions that meld passages of sky and water. In these essays on the unity of earth and sky, Staley creates a feeling of wonder, a unapologetic joy in the beauty of nature. One might have wanted them larger. In a significantly larger format, the spiritual dimensions of a photo like ‘‘Systems of Affinity” would find greater expression.

Kabriel’s subject is rocks. The artist has admitted that for him, rocks have an energy that is connected to the history of humankind, speaking of long endurance and of entropy. Kabriel, who won first prize in the 2005 Bethesda Painting Awards, has always been interested in formal relations in pictorial space, and the chief interest in these rock paintings is just that. If you stand very close to them, you see all the painterly effects, and the whole looks rather shallow. However, seen from a distance, ‘‘Rock Depression,” located at the end of the upstairs corridor, shows subtle changes in depth and relation between the forms, all of which are pushing toward the picture plane with equal force. The image might be unsettling on that score, but intriguing and alluring all the same. A good painting should keep pulling you into its world. These certainly do that.

Also fascinating are the drawings of David Carter and Andrea Adams. Carter’s four detailed graphite studies of a praying mantis display his remarkable talents as a draftsman. In the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibit, Mecklenburg goes so far as to compare Carter’s ‘‘linear grace and expressiveness” to Ingres, noting the artist’s subtle handling of space, light and shadow, and the drawings’ ‘‘precision and abstraction, weight and lightness ... transforming grass and insect into a sweeping abstract pattern.” Adams’ two multi-media drawings of dolls on layers of mylar are more intimate, and redolent with personal reference, their soft textures adding to their dreamlike, nostalgic effect.

More than a few of the artists are represented by digital photography and prints. Among them is Robert Helsley’s absolutely stunning large-scale photo of a tall masted ship in Baltimore Harbor. Its stark contrast of the pre- and post-industrial worlds, and perfectly balanced compositional structure are complemented by a delicate sensibility to color and texture.

Also striking are Joyce Jewell’s four digital prints, combining effects of collage, photography and painting. I particularly liked ‘‘North by Northwest” with its suggestion of torn paper, and the imagery of ‘‘Setting Forth” — an old portrait of Mathias de Sousa, and thus a reference to historic St. Mary’s City — against a layered and textured ground.

John Carr’s dark and richly textured mezzotints of fantastic landscapes lure the viewer into a private world. The sensitivity of his woodcut engraving ‘‘Some Assembly Required” is testimony to Carr’s technical mastery.

Exuding a sense of both innocence and evil, Tendai Johnson’s large paintings linger in the mind. He employs layers of jute over canvas, paint and polymer binder to create a thick and variably textured surface that references his origins in Zimbabwe as well as his relocation and training in this country. Hard to ignore, the large heads that are both infant and old man — from the series ‘‘Innocent(s) Interrupted” — loom confrontationally toward the viewer. Similarly, the seven oils from Sumita Kim’s series ‘‘Vestige” seem to allude to the human body in movement, but their fractional appearance is profoundly disturbing. The color keys the emotional tenor in each, sometimes dark and anguished, other times seeking light.

Among sculptors, the metal constructions of Sam Noto and the cast works of Lincoln Mudd were the most compelling formally. Noto’s loud ‘‘But I’m from New York!” contrasts sharply with the meditative content of Zdeno Mayercak’s plaster relief series ‘‘Organized Planets.” Kay McCrohan’s delicate folded paper figures have a quiet appeal, while Komelia Okim’s dancing copper vessel adds a note of whimsy.