Saturday, September 11, 2004

Yesterday I visited Creative Partners Gallery in Bethesda to look at the finalists and the winners of the various awards that are part of the The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards.

This fine arts award is the result of a commitment by a terrific woman and business leader who is dedicated to bringing artistic attention to our area: Carol Trawick.

Maryland, Virginia and District artists are eligible to compete for the prize.

David Page of Baltimore, MD was the Best in Show winner of $10,000. Jeff Spaulding of Bethesda, MD was honored with the second place prize of $2,000 and Randi Reiss-McCormack of Lutherville, MD was awarded the third place prize of $1,000. Marci Branagan of Baltimore, MD received the "Young Artist" award of $1,000 sponsored by the Fraser Gallery.

My congratulations to all the prizewinners.

I cannot say enough good things about Ms. Trawick and the fact that in an area dominated by some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world, it has been a small business owner who has taken the challenge of ponying up a considerable annual cash prize to recognize an area artist and hopefully place our area on the national fine arts map. My kudos and applause to all involved in this great effort.

Each year Catriona Fraser, who is the non-voting Chair of the Trawick Prize (and whose idea it was to create the Prize), has the unenviable job of gathering three jurors, one each from Maryland, Virginia and the District, to jury the competition and award the prizes.

The jury members for the competition are Jeffrey W. Allison, Paul Mellon Collection Educator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Peter Dubeau, Associate Dean of Continuing Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Kristen Hileman, Assistant Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

This year, the three curators culled these 15 finalists from an entry field of around 400 artists.

And I wish I could have been as quick-witted as Thinking About Art, where Kirkland writes:

"It appears to me that these curators pulled out a handbook titled "How to Jury a Show: The Predictable and Boring Contemporary Way." This handbook, only one page long, likely contains a checklist of types of art that must be in a contemporary art show."
This is funny, but unfortunately correct!

As tempted as I am to say that this exhibition could rank as possibly one of the worst curated group art shows that I have ever seen, I will not do so (ooops! too late!) simply because I recognize that althought I found most of the work boorish, predictable and cookie-cutter contemporary cool "art," I do realize that these are, for the most part, serious, intelligent artists who deeply believe in what they are doing and creating.

My apologies in advance to the artists that I am about to brutalize and my congratulations to the ones that I am about to praise. Remember, it is only my opinion, so please: no hate email.

Graham Caldwell PillowsBut I do have an opinion, and in this case there are very few good things that I can and will say about the artwork - although I place the blame for the vapid quality of this show squarely on the shoulders of the three curators, one of whom I know well and who has curated excellent shows in the past, but when working alone and not in a committee curatorial task, as this one was.

Let me start by saying that Graham Caldwell got ripped off. He should have won the Prize and his work was a vast distance ahead of the rest of the field.

Caldwell's entry, titled "Pillows" (to the left) was a trademark piece by this highly talented artist, represented locally by Addison/Ripley Fine Art in Georgetown.

A lovely composition of delicate glass pieces anchored to the gallery wall, it brought forth not only the artist's technical mastery of one of the great remaining fine arts where technical skill is not up for discussion, but also his keen visual creativity. "Pillows" was the best piece in the show.

Watson's Bainbridge The winner of the worst piece in the show is easily awarded to John Watson - both of his entries.

Watson currently teaches sculpture and drawing at the University of Maryland and the Maryland College of Art and Design, and with all due respect, both of his entries reminded me of the sort of work that art students do when they wake up on a Friday morning and realize that "Oh Fuck! I have a project due today!" Then I ... uh... they would head to the shool's woodshop and grab a pile of odds and ends from the garbage bin and in about 30 seconds create the project.

Problem was that when I'd bring it -- I mean they'd bring it -- to the class later that day, there would be about half a dozen similar "projects" up for review and a bored art professor rolling his eyes and handing out B plusses to everyone.

Watson's OrestesWatson's second entry, titled "Orestes" has a bit more work and thought into it... about 116 seconds more I'd reckon; for a total of 146 seconds!

I was sorely tempted to ask the gallery attendant if the shelf supporting "Orestes" was also done by the artist, as the shelf shows some actual wood-working skill, while "Orestes" actually looks like a maquette for the world's sorriest-looking birdhouse.

Then there is J.L. Stewart Watson coming to the rescue to the artistic Watsons of this world. This artist's entry (a huge messy thing titled "Kitchen 300 degrees (Lollipop 192)") I both hated and loved, and thus I reluctantly place it as one of the most successful works in the show.

This Watson has cooked up a huge drippy, melting installation of sugar, corn syrup, water, dye, steel, cast iron, galvanized cable, muslin and assorted hardware to deliver a brutally macabre work that floats back and forth between mind images of a bloody, tortured female figure to more plebian thoughts of "what a mess."Stewart Watson's Kitchen 300 degrees

I applaud this Watson for actually having the cojones to put a price of $2,800 on an installation that is essentially melting away and creating a spectacular, syrupy, blood-like mess on the gallery's floor. Ants within a twenty mile radius of Creative Partners Gallery must be at this very moment planning the Sunday attack, when the gallery is closed.

"Kitchen 300 Degrees (Lollipop 192)" is also a good point as to why the Trawick Prize is good for Bethesda area art lovers: It allows them to see the kind of work that is rarely seen in our area, unless one ventures to the wilderness of the Hirshhorn, or to any of the next thousand cool-wanna-be museums that are always so fond of sculptures and installations made of food.

Moving on...

News alert to curators: Video is dead! (unless of course you throw in some real sex like Andrea Fraser).

InsularyFuzzy, static-noisy type video is especially dead, overdone, repeated and spectacularly boring!

And that describes the entry of E. Brandon Morse, titled "Insulary." Morse says the conceptual focus of his work is the "development and portrayal of situations of a specifically vague nature." He gets an A+ for achieving that goal, although I think that he's pulling our leg when he uses the word focus in anything to describe his work.

Surprisingly enough, there were three painters among the fifteen finalists: Daniel Sullivan, Jo Smail, and Randi Reiss-McCormack - I am not familiar with any of them, but note that all three have shown nearly exclusively in Baltimore non-profits such as School 33 and thus they are painters that obviously Peter Dubeau knows well and placed into the finalists. I cannot believe that not a single DC or Virginia painter was selected.Smail's Black Angels

Of the three, Smail (who teaches at MICA, where Dubeau is the Associate Dean of Continuing Studies) is by far the best painter. Her Black Angels with Handkerchiefs, is at first deceptively simple and minimalist. Upon close examination, it reveals quite a skilled painter with a strong command of design and composition as well as painting skills.

Work by Marie RingwaldI also liked the three pieces by Marie Ringwald, which are these unusual, utilitarian maquettes of buildings and structures that allow Ringwald to get away with solid fields of color under the cover of sculpture.

They are attractive, well-constructed and strangely appealing. The artist says that they "embody hopefulness, possibilities, history and mystery." I don't know about that, but they are certainly a notch above most of the other work selected for this show and visibly stand out by their design and color.

The Best in Show winner's piece (Paradysdonkie, steel, wood, canvas, felt) by Baltimore's David Page is hard to dislike... or to feel passionate about.

Page's Best of Show Therein lies its failure in my view.

It is modern and contemporary enough... sort of a pommel horse for retired, artsy S&M gymnasts, and certainly does not and would not look out of place in any museum or gallery show of contemporary art, although it may look slightly out of place even in the coolest of post-modernist bachelor pads.

It's not bad; uh... it just doesn't do it for me as Best of Show.

The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards is one of the great assets of our area's cultural tapestry, and designed to recognize the best that our area has to offer. Because the prizewinners are selected by museum and academic curators, it has some inherent flaws in the selection process that are very difficult to correct and that every single committee art curating project has. We must applaud, and add, to this prize, and hopefully demand that future curators do a better job of opening their minds to the skill and talent of artists beyond just those that they know intimately.

The way to do this is for museum curators and for school burocrats to get out of their offices and visit galleries and artists' studios and art panels and the such, so that their tunnel art vision is expanded beyond a handful of artists.