Much recent art has turned to social and political issues for its subject matter. This isn't art about art. Rather than contemplating its own navel, this is art about AIDS, the Persian Gulf war, arts funding, civil rights, urban malaise and other headline-making affairs.
If the polemical message carried by such art often proves more powerful than the artistic package in which it is conveyed, there is still no denying the importance of having a public forum to air such concerns.
After walking through the current socio-political art exhibits at Maryland Art Place and the School 33 Art Center, you'll glumly conclude that our world is in a whole heap of trouble. But on a brighter note, you may also feel a brain cell or two stimulated into thought and then hopefully action.
The larger of the shows, "The Gathering Storm," was curated for Maryland Art Place by artist and critic Joe Lewis. Just as the 25 artists in this show have concerns that are all over the map (and all over MAP), their work varies wildly in quality. The installation also seems rather disjointed, but how would you organize all this?
One of the most effective works is Jane Dickson's painting "Auto Da Fe," in which many cars are massed at night for an ominous ritual in which they are fuel for a bonfire. A blurry crowd gathers in the background. If some of the work in the MAP exhibit suffers from being overly obvious, at least Dickson's painting encourages you to linger and ponder its possible meanings.
Perhaps the angriest piece in the entire show is Rebecca Howland's painting "Bad Day," depicting a woman whose orange hair and sickly yellow skin tell you she's sure upset about something. Oh, yeah, this woman's teeth are tearing into her own skin in a grisly instance of feasting on oneself. Bad day, indeed.
It's especially effective that right in front of "Bad Day" there is a "Pile of Teeth" on the floor. These clay molds were made by Cara Perlman, with the teeth on top more or less human-looking and the ones at the bottom of the pile disturbingly more beastly in nature.
Quite overt in bearing a political missive is Fran Cutrell Rutkovsky, whose "Official Information" was formed by cutting up and interweaving documents on everything from arts funding to health care. Here the stuff of public policy directly becomes a mini-quilt that is anything but comforting.
Even more in-your-face is a mixed media collaboration by Peter Trachtenberg and Robert Reichel, "Enemies List," in which the printed slogans include this one: "Sadaam Hussein was our friend until he had acquired enough American weapons to make a good enemy." These two artists should not expect a dinner invitation from the White House any time soon.
By a coincidence that is not so coincidental considering the spirit moving through the art world, there is a similar if more successful exhibit, "Mixing It Up: Art Reacts to Society," curated by art critic Eleanor Heartney for the School 33 Art Center. Following in the School 33 tradition of presenting its grimmest shows during the holiday season, this exhibit presents socially engaged art by Francisco Alvarado-Juarez, Carl Clark, Mary Ann Crowe, Jeff Gates, Jenni Lukac, Arvie Smith and Joyce Ellen Weinstein.
Among the highlights are Carl Clark's astute photographic portraits of "I Am An American Day" parade spectators in Patterson Park, subway riders, a government worker and well-dressed churchgoers. One is reminded of another keen America-watcher, Robert Frank, who also sought to understand us by photographing our rituals and everyday habits.
Also memorable is an installation by Jenni Lukac, "Mississippi Shrine," in which boxed photographs of slain civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner commemorate their murder in 1963. The large wall-mounted picture of a forest backing the photographs, as well as the real dirt and grass on the gallery floor, are haunting reminders of how their bodies were later unearthed at a woodsy burial site. One almost doesn't feel the need for the votive candles Lukac has placed in the dirt.
"The Gathering Storm" remains at Maryland Art Place, at 218 W. Saratoga Street, through Feb. 1. Call (410) 962-8565.
"Mixing It Up: Art Reacts to Society" remains at the School 33 Art Center, at 1427 Light Street, through Jan. 31. Call (410) 396-4641.