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It takes a beholder's eye

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What you see at this year's Artscape will depend a lot on what you bring to it, including your expectations about what art is, and how a show composed mainly of contemporary art should look.

It's an axiom by now that contemporary art can look any way the artist chooses, from an oil painting in an elaborately carved and gilt frame, to a giant papier-mache doll's head painted in bright, primary colors, to a slab of grass and sod hoisted atop a sturdy concrete pedestal. There's no one style artists have to work in these days, nor is there any one interpretation or strategy for unlocking their meaning.

This means Artscape is a very eclectic show. On one wall, you may see Ruth Pettus' figurative paintings done in a vaguely expressionistic style, and opposite them a group of abstract wood and paper sculptures by Maria Anasazi that looks for all the world like a regiment of books on crutches. (Both are on view in the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Bunting Center at the corner of Lanvale Street and Mount Royal Avenue).

Or take the outdoor sculptures. On the median strip in front of the Lyric Opera House, you'll find Lauren S. Shott's above-mentioned sod and grass installation, "Nature Walk," which is so minimalist and conceptual you could miss it entirely if you aren't paying attention. But just across the street is Tina Carton's harrowing sculpture of a female St. Sebastian, whose flesh-piercing steel arrows and bleeding wounds will make you wince.

A lot of viewers will ask themselves if all this is really art. After all, how could a classical nude like Carton's and a slice of grass and sod like Schott's both be art? And even if you concede that both are art, which requires a very expansive definition of art, what about quality? How can you possibly compare a slab of sod and grass to a classical-realist style sculpture?

There's no short answer to these questions. But we can start from the premise that in the contemporary era, terms like "quality" and "masterpiece" don't carry the same clout they once did. Art today is more about meaning than about beauty, and the things that make an artwork "good" or "bad" have more to do with the kinds of ideas artworks embody than with how well they please the eye.

A lot of the works in this year's Artscape, as in past years, were never meant to be beautiful or even pretty in the conventional sense. This is slightly disconcerting for people whose ideas about art were formed by Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings. It's why many people still can't accept that Andy Warhol was an important artist, because there seems so little that is "artistic" or "beautiful" about soup cans and celebrity photos.

And yet, it's probably fair to say that nearly all the artists on display this weekend are in some way descendants of Warhol and the radically new conception of art he represented. For Warhol, the everyday world was beautiful, and his work was a celebration of the commonplace. Today's artists continue that tradition, celebrating the ordinary and inviting viewers to share their appreciation of the visual world around us.

To get an idea of this new valuation of daily life, check out Tobin Hines' sculpture and installation in the Mount Royal Station building's Decker Gallery. Hines' "Head/Room" consists of two parts: the first is a giant papier-mache head whose hollow interior houses what looks like a scene from a rock video and light show.

The second is a life-size re-creation of a small living room or den, complete with a TV set. The picture on the TV shows the scene inside the head, recorded by a small video camera connected to the monitor.

The piece is about they way we literally "live inside our heads" (hence the punning title), but it's also about the look and feel of the commonplace materials our world is composed of. The external living room is a pastiche of shiny paper, pieces of tinted cellophane and synthetic fabrics in garish colors - the kind of space that's admittedly tacky, but that we have all probably lived in at one time or another. So the piece also is a homage to necessity: the ideal room may be one with molded plaster walls and beautiful antiques, but most of us can't live that way all the time, so we make do with what's at hand and learn to be happy anyway.

I also admired the artist Ikemefuna's gritty photo-collages on African-American themes, many of which recall episodes depicted in painter Jacob Lawrence's great "Migration Series." Ikemefuna's narratives, which commemorate places and people such as New York's Harlem community ("Urban Farmers," 1999) and the victims of police brutality in New York ("Louima," 1997) are mostly constructed of found images and newspaper text, materials that are at once ubiquitous and deeply redolent of contemporary urban existence.

In the Bunting Center's Meyerhoff Gallery, the color photos of Carol Robinson offer another approach to re-creating the texture and feel of modern city life. Robinson's photographs look like family snapshots, the kind of pictures people take not to document important occasions like weddings or funerals, but simply to record the likeness of a loved one.

Robinson's pictures don't have the urgency of documentary photographs, though they clearly record the casual interactions that every family experiences. But these pictures are so low-key and familiar that initially, we're not even aware that they convey a vast store of cultural information that constitutes a sociological commentary on the people portrayed.

In fact, there's an entire school of criticism that postulates the family as photography's primary reason for being. According to this view, the meaning of photography is to be sought not in the formal qualities of the camera's images, but in the social use to which they're put. Since the vast majority of pictures today are taken by family members, photography's meaning lies in its ability to reinforce the familial ties that mediate between the individual and society.

This is one way of interpreting Robinson's pictures, but it's probably not the only way. The best art today, as in past eras, lends itself to many interpretations and affects the viewer on several levels. It may refer to the art that preceded it, in which case that art, too, becomes part of its meaning. For example, we can't look at Carton's martyred female figure without thinking of Piero Della Francesca's suffering St. Sebastian, on which the modern work is based.

Yet Carton's piece means something different from Della Francesca's, and not only because it's in a different medium (sculpture instead of painting). Carton's work speaks to a different time about a different problem - the sacrifice of female potential in a world dominated by men - even though it consciously uses elements of the old artistic language to get its message across. This is the source of the excitement as well as the frustration that contemporary art evokes.

The Baltimore show is a fair example of what a lot of serious artists are trying to express in a new language that depends more than ever before on the viewer's willingness to engage artworks emotionally, intellectual and intuitively, as well as visually. For those willing to accept that invitation, this is art that will challenge and inspire, as well as entertain.

In an article in yesterday's Today section, the name of artist Lauren S. Schott was misspelled, and "Nature Walk," a sculpture of hers being displayed at this year's Artscape, was misidentified.The Sun regrets the error.
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