Walk into the Beth Fiske retrospective at Towson State and Keith Martin jumps off the walls at you. The late Martin, one of the best artists ever to make Baltimore his home, was Fiske's teacher and mentor, and he's reflected in her work in numerous ways:
In the medium, primarily collage. In the combined influences of surrealism and abstraction. In the musical quality -- the way the putting together of bits of paper and the use of color reminds you of both rhythm and melody. And in the importance of beauty, the delicacy of the artist's touch, the underlying optimism, the veiled, hide-and-seek quality of meaning in these works.
All of which is to say that Fiske (who died last year at 86) was derivative, but not really in a bad sense. She wasn't slavishly imitating, she created her own work somewhat in the style of Martin. If you're going to be derivative of somebody around here, you'd have a hard time finding anybody better than Martin.
The down side is that Fiske's work so reminds you of Martin's that you keep wanting it to be as good -- and it's not. An artist can give a follower a lot of things, but you can't give away your eye, and Martin's was superior. It's not that Fiske didn't have an eye, but she was inconsistent.
She created at a high level of competence, but some of the 60 works here are less coherent than others. Some works try too hard for a particular effect and end up being obvious. Some teeter on the brink of the really fine but don't quite make it. And some are simply gems. When she hit, she hit.
"Fountainhead," a rare all-watercolor piece, combines flowing line, glowing color and surrealist-inspired organic shapes in one of the most perfectly realized works here. "Doorway," in its rectangular structure, its sparing use of color, and its reticent expression of emotion, is reminiscent of Eva Hesse's late "window" drawings. "(Untitled hand with watch)" plays off architectural line against color that modulates across the picture plane.
The best work here, however, is the five-part "Bird Song & Fish Series." In it, each image contains an internal logic and an overall compositional elegance, while the series hangs together remarkably well as a group of variations on a theme.
If this show were a third as large as it is, contained the best works here, and occupied a smaller space (for Fiske's small works need intimacy), I'd wonder why Beth Fiske didn't receive a lot more recognition in her lifetime. But this is, in a way, a better show. It allows us a fuller picture of the artist, inconsistency and all. It also shows that at her best Fiske was an artist to be reckoned with, one whose work may have lasting interest.
Beth Fiske Retrospective
Where: Holtzman Gallery, Fine Arts Building, Towson State University
When: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays; through July 30
Call: (410) 830-2808