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'Industrial Strength' carries a blunt message


A glowing critical notice for John Viles' current exhibit at the Katzenstein Gallery would refer as much to his radioactive subject matter as to the ingenuity of how he uses industrial materials.

The environmental message in his exhibit "Industrial Strength: Textiles and Objects" comes through loud and clear. This is not art that lends itself to ambiguity.

Just consider the strips of police caution tape reading "Police Line Do Not Cross" that Viles has woven together to form a "Security Blanket." You would not feel very secure nestled under such a blanket.

Or consider his "Radon Rug No. 2," in which steel fencing serves as the backing frame through which the artist has woven colorful plastic tape. Again, a domestic object as traditionally comforting as a rug is made to seem contaminated by our nuclear age.

This rug is a good example of how gaudy colors are made to serve Viles' message. If his environmental politics are "green," his choice of colors blaringly favors hot pink, yellow and orange.

More than blankets and rugs are affected by pervasive industrialization, pollution and societal tension. The direct impact people comes through humorously in the orange traffic cones used as a "Barricade Bra" on a mannequin. If Madonna ever saw this she would have a new bullet bra in no time at all.

Those who have imaginatively donned protective suits to follow Viles' recent work will readily see how the present exhibit is a natural extension of two shows staged last year: his "Nuclear Foliage" installation for the Columbia Festival of the Arts and his "Nuclear Salad Bar" in the art gallery of Loyola College. Indeed, some of the fixings from that salad bar seem to have gone into this show's "Grow Lamp," in which brightly colored plastic vegetables cover the lamp shade like a mutant crop growing there.

In Viles' exhibits over the past year, his environmental concerns have involved environment-filling installations. Although the Katzenstein Gallery layout is hardly ideal for such an all-over installation, it works well enough to convey his blunt message. If his art does not fully address the complex relationship of people to their environment, he still has world enough and time for more plastic weaving.

Another local artist, Susan Lowe, has entirely different subject matter, mediums and methods, but she also goes in for vibrant colors that shout at each other. Her paintings, drawings and sculptures at Resurgam Gallery rely on acidic colors that further heighten her expressionistic distortions of facial features and corresponding emotional states. So you're not surprised to find people with purple lips in her portraits.

For a good example of activated subjects, simply look at the painted and glazed terra-cotta couple of "Lovebirds" who seem made for each other. It is partly a matter of the open-mouthed and open-eyed amorous aggressiveness they share in a love clutch, not to mention the oversized Picasso-esque noses that may prove cumbersome should the clutch lead to a kiss.

A representative oil painting is "She wanted to go out, but not this year," in which a shrug-shouldered, big-headed woman has contorted facial features that speak to a social life with its share of complaints.

John Viles exhibits at the Katzenstein Gallery, at 729 E. Pratt St., through Sept. 28. Call 727-0748.

Susan Lowe shows at Resurgam Gallery & Books, at 910 S. Charles St., through Oct. 18. Call 962-0513.

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