In terms of visual arts, this year's Artscape is a big letdown.
It has too few works by too few artists in too few shows, and the shows themselves are uneven. Among the million or more people expected to swarm Artscape this weekend, those who take the trouble to look at the art will see some fine works. But not enough of them.
Last year, there were five organized visual arts shows with more than 100 artists represented. This year, there are four, with about 60 artists. Aside from the second annual car show, there are three other curated shows -- one of paintings, one of outdoor sculpture and one of installations.
This is particularly disappointing for a mega "arts festival."
The one painting show is "Demons, Addictions and Other Vices," curated by Gard Jones and Chevelle Makeba Moore. Its theme, if one can glean it from the curators' confusing statement, deals with the psychological and societal challenges we face. Thus we have a broad spectrum of works dealing with subjects from alcoholism to racism to religion to interpersonal relations.
But this is a spotty show. Some of the works make their points more clearly than others, some are poorly thought out or executed or both, and with only 26 works by 16 artists this is -- to use curator Jones' own term -- a lean show. There was room for more art and more consistency.
The outdoor sculpture show -- "Future Relics," curated by Sarah Tanguy -- was a good idea: to create works that might show archaeologists discovering them in some future age what life in the late 20th century is like. Naturally, it gives artists the opportunity to rail about thoroughly familiar ills of society, such as war mentality and destruction of the environment, but some of them do it in imaginative ways.
Tom Seiler's "Integra" is part earthwork, part geometric design, part tombstone memorializing the goddess of truth and beauty, no longer with us. Stephen Lee's "Late 20th-century Haystack" takes the form of a tank made of hay. The point -- that we're making weapons of destruction out of what might be used to nourish us -- is obvious but neatly made.
Gary Jameson's "Architectural Remnant: Paleopolystyrene Period" is in the form of a cromlech (ancient arch made of monoliths, as at Stonehenge), but made of Styrofoam. The point here is not only that we don't make monuments like we used to, but also that what we memorialize in this throwaway age isn't what it used to be. Brent Crothers' "Ode for the Ancient Forest" is a group of logs encircled by a steel band, memorializing the forests that have been wantonly destroyed. Fred Collins' and Stephanie Stelmachowicz's "TV Totem Pole" is a stack of TVs representing the images we as a society hold dear today -- a bit too obvious.
A few of these works are positive, notably Ivy Parsons' "Dream Catcher" made of rope, wire and mica, which confronts the future with a work symbolizing hope. And a few disappoint, especially Betsy Damos' "Untitled," which doesn't really look like felled tree or animal parts. But on the whole this is a successful show.
The installation show, curated by Allyn Massey and called "Jump," has to do with (in her words) "the kind and quality of jump that occurs between our sensory experience of the world and the sense the intellect tries to make of it." The concept is a bit abstract, and the 10 artists (nine projects) involved have gone off in many directions, not all happy ones.
Among the better works here are Sukey Bryan's "Desert Temple: 40 Days and 40 Nights," a space with a sand-covered floor and four walls painted with a desert-like gray landscape. The artist has created a space for contemplation; the only problem may
be it's for too many people -- you really ought to be in this space alone.
Laurel Quarberg's "Seeking" creates a perfect balance of forces between two magnets pulling toward each other, attached to weights that act to pull them apart. Add or subtract weight and you upset the balance. This stands for all kinds of balance that we try to achieve in our lives, not least that between desire and reality.
Mercedes Teixido's tiny objects -- a flight of stairs, a fence, a ring of sand surrounding a sledge hammer -- make the viewer a giant in her space, and force examination of our relationships to objects, and by extension to all the world.
From these high points the show gets more vague and less satisfying, though Pam Thompson's elegant wall drawing goes a long way toward making her "Petticoat" a visual success. Scot Cahlander, creator of admirable works at earlier Artscapes, completely misses here with "Updraft (Glory Holes)," a bare room into which air is forced through tiny holes in the floor. Unless the fans are more forceful than when I was there, you can't feel the air unless you put your hand within a few inches of the floor. The whole thing is too subtle.
So, overall, we have an Artscape visual arts presentation that could be better and should be a lot larger.
True, the marketplace -- where artists show and sell their works -- has been expanded. But it's not an organized, curated show. And true, the Maryland Institute, College of Art did not make available this year one of the galleries Artscape has used in the past. But Artscape could have found another space.
There was a time when Artscape's organized exhibits included 150 or more artists. Quantity isn't everything, but there's no excuse for the representation to be so low. Let's hope for better next year.
Where: Maryland Institute Fox and Mount Royal Station buildings, and Mount Royal Avenue between Lafayette Avenue and Cathedral Street
When: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. today, noon to 9 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday; thereafter, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 13
Call: (410) 396-4575