What do Michelangelo, painter Willem de Kooning, the vast open wilderness of Montana, snowy winter forests and the new millennium have in common?
On paper, nothing. But they've all served as muses to four area artists whose work is being shown at Mill River Gallery in historic Oella Mill through Oct. 24.
The four solo exhibitions, called "4 One Person Shows," coexist in the mammoth, 8,000-square-foot exhibition space to prove once and for all that hip, thought-provoking art can be found outside established art galleries in Baltimore and Washington.
The 5-year-old gallery captured headlines this year after its director made a fiery exit under pressure from the gallery's owner and criticism from area artists.
But with the dispute behind it, Mill River Gallery is concentrating on bringing regional artists and art patrons into the huge, lofty venue.
"It's a really exciting time for the gallery," says Joan Bevelaqua, the gallery's new director. "We already have shows planned through 2001. And this show is very strong. All the artists have put a lot into their work."
Pikesville artist and printmaker Trudi Ludwig's monumental series called "During the Fall" percolated over the intense period she was completing her master's of fine arts degree at Towson University.
Ludwig's sketches of tormented, tumbling figures bring Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" to mind, but she adds a witty, end-of-the-20th-century twist. With titles such as "Crashing Into Y2K" and "Rain of False Profits," Ludwig explores the end of the world, credit card debt and existential angst in one fell swoop.
One of the challenges for artists who draw the human form, Ludwig says, "is to get the motion and the feel of an animated body. I wanted to show that we're all tumbling through life and through space. Do you relax into that fall or do you fight it?"
Cheryl Stratmann Bubier's large series of abstract landscapes was born from a two-week residency at the Montana Artist Refuge and a working trip at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.
Bubier, who lives with her family in a 100-year-old Monkton farmhouse, brought her fresh canvases back to find the images and the feeling of the wilderness intact.
Each of the landscape paintings in the Mill River Gallery show has 15 to 20 scenes drawn or painted over one another. The result: rough, colorful, brooding pictures of the land and the elements.
The pictures work especially well in the gallery, with its exposed ventilation system and naked hardwood floors.
Laurel photographer John Stier ties his color images of the claustrophobic confines of Antelope Canyon in the Mojave Desert to the wide-open spaces of Arizona's Monument Valley.
Capturing the beauty and spirit of the land "is what I do best, what I'm most comfortable with," says Stier, who calls photography a "serious hobby that is hopefully setting me up for a supplemental retirement."
Stier's images range from storefront windows in Ellicott City to snow-lined streams in Yellowstone National Park.
Patrick Minechello's paintings, which he calls "nonrepresentational," stem from abstract expressionism and surrealism. The Baltimore artist's 15-piece series "Transformation" is a combination of grids and calligraphy; his colorful patterns float like lace across a muted background.
Mill River Gallery, the area's largest art exhibition space, has always been a study in contradiction.
On one hand, the huge gallery, a mile from Ellicott City's bustling Main Street, provides a large space where professional artists can show and sell their work without paying the usual up-front fees and hefty commissions charged by commercial galleries.
The downside is the location: Tucked into the hills above the Patapsco River, the mill and the art gallery exist a little too far off the beaten track for most tourists who flock to the historic district's antiques shops, cafes and folksy museums.
The location has made it difficult to attract the kind of foot traffic that allows urban galleries to thrive.
The mill also houses about 50 studios for professional and weekend artists, and artists clamor to show at the gallery, which runs as a sort of nonprofit art space.
"It's a beautiful space and there's nothing really like it in town that has that kind of exhibition potential," Minechello says. "It's unfortunate that it's a little out of the way and not a lot of people know about it. But if it catches on, it'll be a really good space for artists."
All of the artists' work in the gallery show is for sale, but commerce is hardly the point, Minechello says.
"Everyone wants to sell, but having a show and having everything out is a lot better than having the pictures leaning against the wall in your apartment."
"4 One Person Shows" at Mill River Gallery, 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City, runs through Oct. 24. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: 410- 465-6434.