Laudable artwork struggles to somehow share 'Vision'


Arvie Smith is a helluva painter, but as a curator he still has things to learn, judging by his show "Variations on Visions" at the Howard County Center for the Arts.

First, he has put himself in his own show, a practice generally better avoided. Aside from that, the largest and by far the most important of his works in this show, "High Stakes," has been shown elsewhere in this area recently.

Second, not only doesn't there seem to be any particular unifying idea behind the show as a whole -- "Variations on Visions" is pretty vague -- but the artists don't look particularly comfortable with one another.

Smith and Duane Thigpen are what might be called external artists, dealing with formal and social issues, while Catherine Behrent and Deborah Donelson are more interior artists, dealing with personal and psychological themes. So we have two artists whose works more or less shout and two others whose works more or less whisper, and they don't make good matches.

Third, it isn't necessary, as Smith has done, to introduce the artists in the accompanying brochure with a paragraph on each by the curator, followed by artists' statements saying, in at least some of the cases, essentially the same thing.

And, in the fourth place, if the curator is going to accept artists' statements, he ought to make sure they make some semblance of sense. I challenge Smith to explain what Thigpen's gobbledygook of highfalutin' words actually means.

Art, however, rather than words, is the important thing in any show. Smith is always a pleasure to encounter, and while "High Stakes" somewhat overshadows his other paintings here, it doesn't annihilate them. Among the notable others are "Unwilling Immigrant," which incorporates collaged photographs relating to the black experience in America around the central figure. And "Pickininny" offers a compelling portrait of a young black woman whose gaze is riveting.

Thigpen is a technically accomplished artist who plays with abstraction and representationalism, as in his strongest painting here, "Changing States." In it, a trompe l'oeil rendering of a cloud-laden sky alternates with passages of gestural abstraction, and Thigpen creates the illusion of a torn piece of paper on which to paint part of his sky, to show just how he's playing with his subject and the viewer. This is a witty, appealing work; Thigpen's paintings in this show run a gamut from this to the self-indulgence of "Tides of Light."

Catherine Behrent paints still lifes that attempt to express psychological states; some do better than others. The best works here are "Other Centeredness," in which a pear nestles broodingly in a bowl, and "Domestic and Dangerous," whose eggplants look as if they're plotting a coup d'etat.

Deborah Donelson's figural studies of women, covered with graffiti-like marks, are described in part by the artist as the results of "scratching around for fragments of being"; that's exactly what they look like. And that is not meant as a flip put-down; it's meant as admiration for Donelson's self-awareness.


What: "Variations of Vision"

Where: Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; through Nov. 6

Call: (410) 313-2787

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