Arvie Smith's paintings, in the current regional exhibit at University of Maryland Baltimore County, stick with you. His vivid colors, his active line, his figures shown close up so that they're right in your face, and his combination of topical subject matter and art historical references make his canvases arresting and unforgettable.
Smith's "Strange Fruit" is a visual rendering of Billie Holiday's song about lynching. Its central figure, a black man with a rope around his neck, has the faraway look in his eyes of martyrs from Renaissance paintings, and his hooded killers show by the trousers and shoes that stick out beneath their gowns that they're people who will be walking around among us tomorrow. Their disguise is not their uniforms, in which they reveal their real nature, but their everyday ordinariness.
Smith is one of seven artists in the current "View from Baltimore to Washington," an annual invitational. This year's curator was Angela Adams, an adjunct curator for the Washington Project for the Arts and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The title, "Figure as Subject," tells you that these are artists who use the human figure in their work, and Adams says in her curator's statement she was asked by the coordinator of exhibitions, Symmes Gardner, to concentrate on painting.
Within those boundaries, she strove for variety, including artists who depart from working strictly in paint on canvas. David Frye uses collage; Mark D. Clark incorporates photography; John Lee's portraits are in pastel.
But that's only the beginning of the variety here. Lee's traditional, extremely well-executed portraits of family members, are in look, technique and subject matter about as far as you can get from Frye's deliberately patched-together political works on racism. These incorporate everything from Bible pages to boots, and, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, they look less as if they were made the way they are than as if they changed spontaneously over time in response to acts of racism in the society.
Ruth Pettus' and Mia Halton's paintings are about human interrelationships, but they differ from one another, too. Halton's paintings are essentially optimistic statements on the human condition and the possibilities of life. Pettus' paintings of men explore a darker side: They deal with the weak, the mean, the manipulative, the devious, the hostile, the controlling. Her "Heavyweight" is one of the best works in this show.
Ed Bisese's paintings dwell in a realm that incorporates satire and symbol. Masks, oversize heads and other distortions, renderings like caricatures and bright colors present the kind of disguises that often reveal more of the essential nature of the character than they hide.
In contrast to many of the other works here, Clark's photographs, which have been painted, mounted on board and otherwise altered, are cool, quiet and, within the context of figural work, even minimalist looking. "Ice and Sand" inevitably recalls Munch's "The Scream" but looks less like a representation of suffering than a depersonalized symbol. The three Clark works here, "Ice and Sand," "Super Man" and "Echo," when read as one, can constitute a narrative of suffering and escape to peace through suicide; that may not be what the artist had in mind, but the installation makes such an interpretation almost inescapable.
What: "View from Baltimore to Washington 1993."
Where: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through May 29.
& Call: (410) 455-3188.