It may seem odd that renowned Baltimore painter Grace Hartigan, who made her reputation as an abstract expressionist (flat, flat, flat!) in New York in the 1950s, today is mentor to any number of younger artists who (gasp!) actually like figures, perspective and the subtle interplay of light and shadow.
But Hartigan, who directs the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says there's no mystery at all about her involvement with painters who've chosen paths very different from her own.
"I'm known for the tremendous variety of people that come out of Hoffberger," she said. "I loathe the idea of everybody being a fifth-generation abstract expressionist, and I would be very ineffectual if I expected everyone to apply my aesthetic."
That tolerant spirit is apparent in Athena's Daughters, the exhibition of five of Hartigan's proteges that opens tomorrow at Maryland Art Place.
The show, which Hartigan curated, presents paintings, drawing, sculpture and installation by Espi Frazier, Allyson Smith, Mina Cheon, Jessica C. Damen and Tonya Ingersol, all of whom were once Hartigan's students at MICA.
There's something else they have in common as well.
"They asked me to choose a show, and I thought I would choose not just good artists but also women who for race, sexual orientation or age reasons are not in the art mainstream," Hartigan explained. "So I have two African-American artists, one Korean, one lesbian and one older woman, none of whom fits the art world's good-old-boy thing. This gives them a chance for exposure when there aren't many venues for women in that category."
In that spirit, the show's title may be a bit of a pun on Hartigan's nurturing role in these artists' development, too. "Athena is my favorite goddess because she didn't have a mother," Hartigan said. "She was the intellectual goddess, born full-blown from the head of Zeus."
In any case, the theme of motherhood plays a prominent role in Damen's paintings, which depict surreal, sometimes nightmarish scenes of childhood anxiety that seem to hover just outside the neat categories of fantasy, expressionism or realistic depiction.
In Angry Swan, for example, a frightened young girl lies helplessly on the ground as an enormous bird beats its wings over her semi-nude body.
The image is a graphic repudiation of the violence implicit in the ancient myth of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus took the form of a bird in order to ravish the nymph he coveted without being seen by his wife Hera.
"Jessica is the Lewis Carroll of Baltimore," Hartigan said. "Remember, terrible things happened to Alice - falls, chases, beheadings. I think Jessica is talking about things that happen to children who are both menacing and being menaced."
A sense of menace also pervades the cartoon-like images of Smith, whose machine-gun-toting brides and witch-burnings on the White House lawn are a serious protest against gay-and-lesbian-bashing politicians as well as deliriously over-the-top parodies of the sanctity of marriage.
The deadpan realism of Ingersol's large-scale paintings also addresses issues of social injustice, be it white indifference to black suffering or the suffocating taste for cuteness embodied in black memorabilia like lawn jockeys and ethnic dolls.
"Maybe all of them are political in some way," Hartigan says. "And after all these years, I'm finding myself a bit of a feminist in spite of myself. I've always had a sense of anger at injustice. So when I can make something just a little bit right by bringing these artists to the public's attention, I enjoy doing that."
What: Athena's Daughters
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sat; through Jan. 8
Where: Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place, Suite 100
Call: 410-962-8565 or visit www.mdartplace.org