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New England architecture plays role in latest exhibit at Howard Community

A painting by Brad Fesmire now on exhibit at Howard Community College.
A painting by Brad Fesmire now on exhibit at Howard Community College. (Submitted photo)

The paintings by Brad Fesmire on display at Howard Community College's Rouse Company Foundation Gallery are almost completely abstract, but they offer just enoughrepresentational references to remind you of the world to which they are a painterly response.

In calling his exhibit "Parts and Labor," this Rhode Island artist alludes to people who work with their hands. These wood panel paintings require a good bit of carpentry and other craftsmanship to make them ready to hang on a wall; moreover, the varied paint application often involves so much visible brushwork that there is a sense of the labor that went into applying paint to a flat surface.

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That sort of hands-on labor becomes even more overtly apparent in mixed medium paintings that refer to New England architecture. You can detect how the built environment informs the artist's otherwise rather fluid sense of composition and coloration.

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Although the checklist identifying works by their individual titles was not yet available in the gallery at the time of review, it was possible while looking at these numbered paintings to identify the various ways in which they often provide relatively specific references to the world we move through.

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In painting number one, for example, the flat surface of the wood panel supports a section of actual cedar shingles. This shingle-covered section really looks like it could be affixed to a building and keep the weather outside. That house-suitablecoating only covers part of the surface of this composition, however, because the rest of it is a painterly surface in which gray paint drips down over a tan undercoat. This is the kind of abstract painting in which the viewer's attention is drawn to the paint application itself.

Wood shingles also appear on a section of painting number four, the rest of which is given over to a black-and-white-paint-slathered flat surface in which the visible brush strokes, areas with dripped paint and abrasion-scrubbed portions serve as self-conscious reminders of the activity of painting.

Just as those wood shingles are blunt reminders of the built environment that have been incorporated into an otherwise entirely abstract composition, there is the painted outline of a fence extending across the broad surface of painting number six.

This large three-panel painting is notable for the abstract wash of dripping paint covering much of the surface, as well as incised lines that cut into the backing wood panels.

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Quite a few of the exhibited paintings have lines cut into their surfaces, as if to joltingly violate what in some cases would be flat zones of color.

Similarly, painting number three has an incised line running across the entire width of the painting. This work also incorporates stenciled letters that are tantalizingly revealed in some areas and concealed in other areas of what amounts to a busily painted surface.

The vigorously painted surfaces in Fesmire's paintings typically do not aspire to cohere into anything representational, but the paintings nevertheless often have a certain organizational rigor owing to the tendency to divide the pictorial space into straight line-divided zones.

In painting number eight, for instance, there are four vertical zones occupying one side of the composition and five horizontal zones occupying the other side. Although the colorful drips within each zone are not exactly neat and orderly, the sharply differentiated zones do establish some compositional boundaries.

Most of these paintings strive to strike a balance of sorts between linear order and gestural freedom. The more striking examples include painting number five, in which stringently linear black-and-yellow triangular shapes at the top of the painting hover over very gestural blue-hued brush strokes arcing across the rest of the painterly surface.

There is an interplay between straight lines, looser lines and unruly pools of color in much of the exhibited work. That gentle tension can be found within nearly all of it.

Another type of contrast can be found between one painting and another in terms of how some paintings adhere to the traditional rectangular shape for a painting while others are shaped panels that violate that rectangular rule.

In painting number two, that rectangle-distorting approach is found at the base of the panel. It bulges downward, as if thepredominantly orange-toned composition decided to spread further south.

In terms of the history of contemporary American painting, this is no longer exactly a radical move. The late Ellsworth Kelly, an artist that Fesmire has cited as an influence, spent decades exploring shaped canvases that departed from the rectangular norm. Just the same, Fesmire's selective use of non-rectangular shapes adds to the general sense of how he aims to give abstraction a lively workout.

Brad Fesmire exhibits through Oct. 9 in the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Running concurrently in HCC's Art Department Gallery is an exhibit by Baltimore artist Alice Valenti. There is a reception for both shows on Sept. 8, from 5 to 7 p.m. Go to www.howardcc.edu/galleries

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