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'Big Show' rooted in the community


The Creative Alliance at the Patterson, the Highlandtown-based community arts organization that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, marks another milestone with The Big Show '05, the latest in its decade-old series of annual group exhibitions in which all the association's approximately 1,000 members are invited to participate.

This year there are about 200 works on view in the group's spacious exhibition venue on Eastern Avenue, a pretty impressive indicator of the alliance's growth over the years.

The group's first Big Show, held in 1995, displayed about half as many works as the current exhibition and was mounted in a tiny, improvised gallery above a Fells Point cafe.

The Big Show '05 presents works in all media, with painting, sculpture, photography and mixed-media seeming to predominate.

This isn't a juried exhibition, so the works on view vary widely in terms of subject matter, presentation, style and quality.

But whatever unevenness results from this democratic spirit of inclusiveness is more than made up for by the show's snapshot of what's going on among a fairly representative cross-section of local artists.

Step back a bit and the big picture that emerges from The Big Show is first of all that there's an incredible amount of interesting work being done by Baltimore artists and, secondly, all this art-making activity really does seem to have a significant impact on the economic redevelopment of the area.

Artists have brought new energy and hope to a community that only a few years ago was struggling to maintain its businesses and residents.

The alliance has become a pillar of the community, a stabilizing influence that has helped the surrounding neighborhood staunch the hemorrhage of dollars and talent.

There are any number of works in The Big Show that reflect artists' appreciation for the transformative role a strong sense of community plays in the life of neighborhoods.

William Diggs' exuberant painting of kids frolicking poolside on a scorching summer day is a poetic evocation of childhood pleasure as well as a reaffirmation of the way people are shaped by such shared experiences. We sense these youngsters' sheer delight in the cooling waters purely through their body language because we've all been there ourselves.

The work is executed in an unpretentious, realistic style reminiscent of the African-American master Hughie Lee-Smith, whose paintings likewise often celebrate the small triumphs of everyday communal life.

Nancy Linden's soulful drawings of marginalized urban characters, by contrast, suggest the toll taken on individuals when the ties that bind them to others become frayed or broken.

In Alabama Woman, a mixed-media portrait of a solitary elderly woman and her burden of cares, the unraveling of community is implicit in her attitude of alienation and estrangement.

There are far too many works in this show even to attempt to describe them all, but other highlights include Robert A. McClintock's digitally embellished portrait of the old Patterson Theater facade, Jeanine Turner's mysterious color photograph of a woman alone in an abandoned industrial building, Jude Asher's cunning basket sculpted from twigs and tree branches and Exsul Van Helden's sensitive portrait of a young girl.

The intriguing companion exhibition in the second-floor gallery of recent works by Steve Pauley, whose images of commonplace objects -- advertising fliers, graffiti and other ephemera -- are given monumental permanence in stone sculptures, rounds out the center's offerings.

The Big Show '05 runs through July 30. Steve Pauley: Recent Works ends Saturday. Hours at the gallery at 3134 Eastern Ave. are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Call 410-276-1651 or visit www.creativealliance.org.

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