In terms of art, this 13th edition of Artscape is the best I've ever seen. And I've seen most of them. Its four principal shows have been well- conceived, curated and executed. And, almost all the art in them is good work.
Most past Artscapes, even when good, have contained some work that's frivolous, pretentious, slap-- or something worse. While this year's version is not completely devoid of such work, examples are a real rarity.
If anything, this year's version may be a little too serious. One expects to find something off the wall, outrageous or subversive -- just so we'll know for sure it's Artscape. But there's little reason for dissatisfaction when the art is this well thought out.
One explanation for the success is the absence of overt socio-political work. While admirable in its intentions, such works often reveal a maximum of passion and a minimum of aesthetic creativity.
The show that comes closest to dealing with social concerns is the outdoor sculpture exhibit, "Artifice and Nature." Curated imaginatively by Tex Andrews, it deals with the conflict between the natural world and civilization. But its artists have eschewed polemics in favor of works that address the theme by suggestion and implication.
John Ruppert's "Carmen" is an excellent example. He has taken chain link fence, an urban, non-natural material, and draped it around an upright post so it makes a graceful spiral falling on the ground around the post. This suggests the many spiral forms in nature, notes Andrews in his curator's essay. But the title "Carmen" also makes us think of it as both the skirt of a dancer and the cape of a toreador. Man the destroyer is thus introduced into this equation, making a work at once visually simple and full of complex reverberations.
Thomas B. Witt's "Untitled (Inverted Tree)" features a tree hung upside down in a metal cage. Poor thing, it looks about to die in the heat. This work makes the viewer aware intellectually of the destruction of nature by development, but it also engages the emotions -- it makes you feel sorry for the tree.
Allyn Massey's "Island" consists of rows of white banners bordering a triangle of grass and trees. It suggests how well man and nature can complement one another. Lee Lehnert's "Five Ovens for Fish" consists of just that: five little ovens with real fish in them. It's about how we destroy nature to satisfy our selfish appetites. James Vose's "Untitled," a big, black steel creature hugging the ground, looks a bit like a plow or an enormous insect, or both, suggesting that our exploitation of nature can lead to results we don't foresee and may regret.
Beauty as an element of art has become a devalued concept in recent times, so it's refreshing to have a show called, and devoted to, "Beauty." As Tom Miller, who co-curated the show with Linda Day, indicates in his introductory statement, beauty is both elusive and subjective. Not all of these works would fit anybody's idea of beauty, nor are they meant to; rather, the artists address the concept from different perspectives, even perverting beauty to get us to think about it.
Connell Patrick Byrne's "Spring," inspired by the topiary gardens at Ladew in Harford County, presents a scene in which man and nature work in harmony to achieve a beautiful result. Mitch Gyson's "Rudy's Cosmic Cafe" suggests there is beauty even in the kitschy aspects of contemporary culture. The moss-covered urn and old woman in Cathy Leaycraft's "La Que Sabe -- The One Who Knows" suggest the beauty of wisdom, age, even decay.
In her white sculpture, "Beached," Patricia Anderson abstracts the beauties of the curve in nature. Hayes Friedman's "Strategic Alliance IV" is a beautifully painted scene of two black-clad women bending over a table with fruit in their hands. Part of this work's beauty is in its mystery, in the fact we don't know exactly what's going on and can create our own meaning.
The beauty of people having a good time together is the subject of Sam Kittner's photograph, "Town Party #1." Kit-Keung Kan's "Autumn Falls IV" is about the beauty of nature and the changing seasons.
One of the few pretentious elements in this Artscape is found in Luis Flores' introduction to "Bedtime Stories, Dreams and Nightmares," the exhibit he curated. Fortunately, the show itself -- a thought-provoking exploration of what dreams and the word dream means -- doesn't live down to its introduction.
Some of the work is psychological, such as the frightening faces in Jefferson J. Steele's "Fear of Darkness" and "Terror Eyes." Some of it is more cultural; for example, E. H. Sorrells-Adewale's "Listening Prayer" shows a brightly colored cloak that appears to be made of masks and other pieces of the artist's cultural past. In the realm of the sociological, is Judy Byron's "We Are the Sons and Daughters: The Latin American Youth Center," which deals with young people's dreams of a world of peace and harmony. Helen Glazer's "Sunrise," a painting of people in separate boats adrift on a sea, is heavily symbolic -- addressing the difficulty of communication. And some of the exhibit is issue-oriented, such as Terresa Ford's "Uncle George Series" about child abuse.
"The Ecstatic Garden of Sublime Delirium," a series of installations by 16 artists, is "concerned with the illusions inherent within space/time relationships," writes curator Laure Drogoul. That's a pretty high-falutin' concept, but the show is fun.
It's set up so that instead of walking by and looking in at the installations you go through them from one to another, as if (as Drogoul suggests) you're going through a fun house.
In Al Zaruba's "Arbor of Unfulfilled Desire," you wander amid flashing lights and walls hung with streamers, and you might see a figure clothed in more streamers darting in and out of a dark recess. In Maripat Neff's "It's Only a Matter of Time," you'll be invited to lie in a coffin and look at your image in a mirror on the ceiling.
David Page's "Personal Prisons" has you confronting the artist bound in various garments of restraint, such as a strait jacket. And in Spoon Popkin's and Daniel Van Allen's "Malformation Highway" you wander amid walls and floor painted with representations of an industrialized, polluted Baltimore. You may not like every element of this piece, but you won't be bored.
A fifth exhibit, "Car Show" -- some 15 automobiles visually altered in various ways -- is to be in place by opening time at 6 p.m. today.
What: Artscape '94
Where: Maryland Institute, College of Art's Fox Building, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues, and Mount Royal Station building, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street, and Mount Royal Avenue corridor from Lafayette to Maryland avenues
When: 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. today; noon to 10:30 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. After Artscape, the four shows will continue indoors 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 7
K? Call: (410) 396-4575; during festival hours, (410) 225-2283