Art Review: John Gossage and Matthew Moore at the AAM by Mary McCoy

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There’s some very intriguing photography on view in three of the Academy Art Museum’s four galleries through April 7. A roomful of newly acquired works by such prominent photographers as Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, William Eggleston, Lisette Model, and Bruce Nauman gives a brief taste of the startling breadth of photography’s range over the past century, but it’s the two other galleries, one with John Gossage’s work and the other with Matthew Moore’s, that will really leave you thinking.

Gossage is a well-known photographer living in Washington who taught at the University of Maryland College Park and who exhibits internationally. On view is “The Pond,” his 1985 series of black-and-white images shot in the vicinity of an unremarkable pond at the edge of a city. Unremarkable is the operative word, because Gossage focuses on its humdrum situation surrounded by ragtag trees, dusty paths and tangled vines bordering on a human landscape of suburban houses and their attendant chain link fences and power wires. A distinctly prosaic tableau is revealed that we know all too well is repeated thousands of times across the country wherever neighborhoods meet natural landscape. There’s nothing of the iconic richness and beauty found in Ansel Adams’s elegant “Cedar Tree and Maple Leaves” just across the hallway. Gossage presents these peripheral landscapes exactly as he finds them, brambled, scraggly, strewn with trash, and mostly overlooked.

John Gossage, image from “The Pond,” vintage gelatin silver print

But as you peruse these 47 photos (also published as a book), they get under your skin. However unremarkable their setting, they are photographed so skillfully, with such clarity of detail and evenness of tone, that their blandness seems almost exquisite. Every leaf, twig and blade of grass is clearly visible and acknowledged in Gossage’s photographs so that, perversely, they embody both the human longing for nature and our blatant disinterest in its existence. In titling his series “The Pond,” Gossage slyly built in an oblique but nagging reference to Walden Pond and Thoreau’s insatiable curiosity and Transcendentalist awe in exploring its every detail. In Gossage’s landscapes, the human presence is instead one of indifference, conspicuously devoid of any sense of wonder.

Upstairs, Easton photographer Matthew Moore’s “Post-Socialist Landscapes” bear some notable similarities to Gossage’s in that his photographs also draw their impact not from being beautiful, but from the deadpan, black-and-white austerity of their compositions and their crisp and intricate detail. An Associate Professor and Visual Arts Department Chair at Anne Arundel Community College, Moore shares Gossage’s fascination with the human presence in the landscape, but with a focus on how societies use landscape, particularly urban spaces, to manipulate our views of history. This series, shot during a 2014 residency at the Vilnius Academy of Arts’ Nida Art Colony in Lithuania, records the aftermath of Soviet occupation in photographs that fall into three categories.


Matthew Moore, “Stalin, Prague, Czech Republic, 2014,” pigment print

One explores the crumbling military structures that were used to maintain power. There are former bunkers and machine gun nests being slowly overrun by graffiti and grass. The disused blast berms on Estonia’s Turisalu Missile Base are now so blanketed with small trees and wildflowers that they resemble Bronze Age barrows, transformed into just another bit of history buried in the ground.

A second group records public spaces where statues of Lenin, Stalin or both once stood. In some, the only remaining evidence is a cluster of ornamental bushes or an odd stretch of vacant pavement, while in “Lenin, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2014,” a visible scar still remains in the form of a bare spot smack dab in the center of a plaza. In a shot of Letna Hill in Prague, the huge pedestal that once held a 51-foot-tall statue of Stalin overlooking the city below has been repurposed to support an enormous metronome whose ticking provides a constant reminder of Czech struggles under Soviet communist rule.

In the third category, Moore documents the temporary resting places of these statues. The effect is sometimes comic, as when he discovered a discarded sculpted head of Lenin in a backyard in Estonia between some rubble and a flowering shrub. Others, such as busts of both Lenin and Stalin stored on stacks of wooden pallets, feel far more ominous. Like Prague’s ticking pendulum, they hold a warning that without vigilance, the political pendulum might easily swing back again.

Moore’s work and Gossage’s create a curious dialogue. While Moore explores how we consciously use landscape to promote agendas, Gossage documents what may be an even darker side of human nature—how little we notice or care about how we affect the land. Although both artists can legitimately be termed landscape photographers, their works expose far more about human proclivities than about the landscape we inhabit.

Art Review: Review: 60th Anniversary Members Show at the Academy Art Museum by Mary McCoy

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There’s a double celebration going on at the Academy Art Museum. Formally marking the culmination of a year-long celebration of this flourishing community museum’s 60th anniversary, its Annual Members’ Exhibition, on view through January 13, is very much a celebration of the vitality of art on the Eastern Shore. With works by 184 artists, an impressive number for our rural area, it’s a lively, colorful show and if the cliché may be excused, has something for everybody.

As might be expected, there are many beautiful Eastern Shore landscapes with shimmering water, quiet marshes and farmlands. Some of these paintings and photographs are realistic, some are more abstract or even cartoonish, but together, they sketch a rich portrait of this region. Towering clouds dwarf a cluster of barns in Gail McConaughy’s lush “Storm Building,” while sunset’s afterglow casts a blush of pink on the calm water around a small boat in Diane DuBois Mullaly’s “By the Light of the Moon.” There are boaters, crabbers, clammers, docks and a lighthouse, as well as herons and ospreys and even a slightly cynical chicken in “Grandma Poses” by Irene Aspell.

Gail McConaughy, “Storm Building,” oil

But in addition to landscapes, there are portraits, ceramics, jewelry, fiber art, sculptures, still lifes, and an impressive array of floral art. Some of the most memorable are Katherine Allen’s elegant fabric collage with its sooty paint stains spritzed with hand-stitching and French knots, Pamela Into’s unusual pair of vases molded from bok choy leaves, and Abby Ober Radford’s understated “Roses, Roses, All the Way” with its luscious brushstrokes just barely fleshing out rose petals and glints of light on a stack of teacups.

Katherine Allen, “My Year of the Dragon,” fiber collage

Several of the works will tease at your thoughts even after you’ve left the exhibit. Matthew Moore’s photographs of three empty pedestals, each surrounded by grass and fallen leaves, is strangely haunting and conjures questions of what memorials they may have held and how they came to be missing. Startlingly alike with their shaggy white hair and irascible expressions, two self-portraits by twin brothers, David and James Plumb, will make you wonder about sibling relationships and the nature of individuality. And while Kevin Garber’s tiny rhinoceros sheathed in colorful postage stamps from around the world seems at first to be a cheery little sculpture, a closer look turns it worrisome. The stamps covering its body depict exotic animals and plants, while those on its pedestal show symbols of the countries that produced them. Given the rhino’s dangerously falling population, poaching and endangered species leap to mind, as do politics and nationalism.

Kevin Garber, “Endangered,” mixed media

To help commemorate its 60th anniversary, the Museum suggested artists might submit works with 60 as their theme, resulting in several depictions of its picturesque exterior (still topped by its 1820 school bell tower), as well as a number of works incorporating the number 60. These include Peter Hanks’s painting of a gigantic crab weighing in at 60 on a scale that spells “Happy Birthday” and Constance Del Nero’s inventive “Population” with its tiny blister packs sculptured into 60 cartoon faces. One particularly satisfying work is Scott Sullivan’s sketchbook containing 60 skillfully drawn charcoal portraits.

Matthew Moore, “Pedestals,” pigment print

This show is itself a portrait of the broad spectrum of artists here on the Eastern Shore. There are many levels of accomplishment included, from more amateur works to pieces by artists such as William Willis, Katherine Allen and David Douglas who have been featured in solo shows at the Museum, as well as Matthew Moore, whose thought-provoking series of photographs, “Post-Socialist Landscapes,” will be exhibited at the Museum in March and April.

The sheer bounty of artworks in this exhibit makes it a spirited celebration of the Museum and its community of artists. Formerly held in the summer months, it makes for great holiday viewing and reinforces the sense that, with its full schedule of exhibits, classes, events, concerts and outreach programs, we are fortunate to have such an active and engaging community museum in our midst.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Mid-Shore Arts: A Review of Jo Smail and Paul Jeanes at the Kohl by Mary McCoy

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You can tell from the title that “Clippings, Voids and Banana Curry” is going to be fun. On view through December 9 at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery, it brings together the work of Jo Smail and Paul Jeanes, two artists from very different backgrounds, who became friends when both were teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art.

At first, it seems to be an odd pairing. Jeanes’s large, powerful paintings unquestionably dominate the gallery with their stark black-and-white slanting shapes, but it’s Smail’s tiny collages that will draw you in like magnets. Shortly, you almost forget about Jeanes as you slip into reading the ’50’s and ’60’s vintage recipes, smiling at the ads for outmoded ladies’ undergarments, and shaking your head at the strangely polite newspaper articles on issues surrounding apartheid.

Jo Smail, collages: digital prints, acrylic and cardboard on paper mounted on board

Smail was born and raised in South Africa, and when she brought a bag full of her mother’s old recipes (including one for banana curry) home from a recent visit, she discovered articles and ads on the back of some of the recipes clipped from newspapers that stand as cultural artifacts of the country during its apartheid years.

Although Smail is primarily an abstract painter, she layered scans of the clippings along with many handwritten recipes and old envelopes into playful compositions of understated color and texture. Floating an inch or so from the wall, these dozens of collages seem to dance, one after another, across the walls of the gallery in a collection hovering between nostalgia and immediacy. Simultaneously engaging and edgy, they call to mind a time when cheerful Afrikaner women, in dresses tailored to the latest American pointy bras and waist-trimming foundation garments, ostensibly found fulfillment in whipping up new recipes every day, while blissfully ignoring the race-based poverty outside their kitchen doors.

Unframed and eschewing the usual rectangular format, Smail’s collages take their complicated shapes from the multiple angles of the clippings, punctuated here and there with offhand painted shapes. Sometimes gestural, sometimes almost evoking an object (one resembles a cartoon time bomb), these painterly elements nimbly introduce a certain animating awkwardness, possibly a metaphor for the deep flaws in the prim culture evoked by the clippings. Casual and often comical, her collages hum with a portentous tension not unlike that underlying our own times.

Paul Jeanes, “Projection Painting #3,” oil on linen on panel

Curiously, Jeanes’s paintings and inkjet prints possess a similar bracing tension, though it reverberates more in the body than the mind. Jeanes teases optical quandaries by playing mercilessly with perspective. What our eyes want to interpret as the four panes of a window in “Project Painting #3” just won’t quite come together. The edges of the “panes” tilt in irreconcilable directions and don’t quite line up.  Sometimes, they even shift directions as if bending back or forward. It’s a visual conundrum that both fascinates and sets your teeth on edge.

To complicate matters further, there’s a creeping realization that super-subtle angled shapes deriving from nothing more than a change in the sheen of the black paint float behind the white shapes. As you grow attuned to these nuances, you begin to notice that the empty white “panes” are not voids, but are alive with evidence of underpainting mingled with the woven texture of the underlying linen panel. A weird sensation of physicality vies with the painting’s tense geometry as the very idea of illusory space held within a static picture plane dissolves.

In his inkjet prints, Jeanes hints that his process begins with observations of actual objects or places. There’s no telling what they really are (a theater stage? a book? a sunbeam slanting across a floor?), but he photographs phenomena that interest him then prints them and cuts them up, rearranges them, experiments, and finally, projects them onto linen or canvas to create his final paintings. Unlike Smail, he prefers his sources to remain anonymous, and he works on a large enough scale that you feel like you could walk into one of his paintings and be lost in an hallucinatory world of shifting perspectives.

More than 30 years her junior and with less exotic roots in North Carolina, Jeanes nonetheless approaches the creative process with the same open, exploratory spirit that Smail cultivates. Curiosity and playful humor energize both artists’ works and make them fun to look at, but it’s the tension of incompatible viewpoints that keep them loitering in the mind. The impossibility of the coexistence of privilege and equality summoned by Smail’s collages and the irreconcilable viewpoints implied by Jeanes’s paintings prod and probe at our settled understandings of the world we live in.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Review: Jay Fleming at the Academy Art Museum by Mary McCoy

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While the Academy Art Museum continues to celebrate its 60th anniversary with its downstairs galleries filled with a wide-ranging and fascinating exhibit of works drawn from its permanent collection, upstairs is a remarkable little show by Annapolis photographer Jay Fleming.

Inventive and spectacular are two good words for describing Fleming’s photographs. There’s only the tip of the bow of a boat showing in his photo, “Sinking Workboat,” as it is engulfed by the waves. It’s such a startling image that it’s hard to imagine how he ever managed to shoot it. Its splashing water is so clear and fresh and the deep water surrounding the boat is so dark and foreboding that it’s like a dream, or in the context of this show, a nightmare.

Fleming’s exhibit, “Island Life,” on view through November 11, documents life on the Chesapeake’s only inhabited offshore islands, Smith Island and Tangier Island. Preserving traditions dating back to the islands’ settlement in the late 1600s, many of the islanders still make their living from the Bay’s waters, but rising sea levels, subsiding land and environmental stresses on the Bay and the species it supports threaten both their homes and their livelihoods.

Jay Fleming, “Sinking Workboat,” archival matte canvas print

The mingling of exquisite beauty and a sense of wrenching loss so apparent in “Sinking Workboat” is repeated throughout this show. The shimmering warmth of low sunlight on a venerable workboat is made poignant by its name, spelled out in peeling paint along its bow, “Last Call,” while across the gallery is “Abandoned House on Smith Island,” a shot of a weathered and broken-windowed home standing bravely amidst scraggly bushes and weeds.

The son of a National Geographic photographer, Fleming has his father’s skill at documentation, and he uses his talents and deep knowledge of the Chesapeake region both to earn a living as a commercial photographer and to pursue his passion for documentary art. His photographs are often seen on the covers of such magazines as Wooden Boat and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Save the Bay, and he recently published a stunning book of photographs called Working the Water that chronicles the lives of the Bay’s watermen.

What sets Fleming’s work apart is not just his skill and his easy familiarity with human interactions with the Bay and its creatures, but perhaps most importantly, his dazzling ability to make change visible. Heart-wrenching photos of abandoned houses have become ubiquitous in articles about rising sea levels, but Fleming captured his standing in eerie stillness while a flight of blackbirds swoops away under a lowering sky. A riveting glimpse of the last moment before the birds disappear and the fury of the storm begins, it’s a potent metaphor for the plight of these sinking islands and the loss of a way of life.

Jay Fleming, “Abandoned Skiff,” archival matte canvas print

It’s a puzzle how Fleming manages to create many of these photographs. Somehow, he’s in the right place at the right time, focused and ready to shoot. “Rockfish and Blue Crab” captures these iconic denizens of the Bay together in an underwater double portrait so crisp and colorful that, again, it seems as if it’s out of a dream. Likewise, “Above the Buyboat Delvin K” catches a graceful dance of oyster boats seen from above as they shimmy up to a buy boat to transfer their daily catch. It’s pure beauty, and it’s all about fleeting moments and changing times, laced through with the inkling that what we’re seeing will never be the same.

There’s magic in these photographs, and though we long for preservation and stability, it’s intoxicating to see one scene after another teetering on the edge of change. Still, Fleming conjures a certain optimism in the beauty and clarity of his photographs and in his ability to see familiar things anew. With its bow bearing a curious resemblance to the pointed arch of a shrine, a skiff left to decay in the marsh is a forlorn sight at first glance, but inside is a sign of renewal and hope in the form of a bird’s nest complete with eggs. Change is inevitable whether through human effort or by nature reclaiming its own, but these photographs suggest that by paying attention, there may still be ways to instigate positive changes for the Bay and those of us who live and visit here.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Mid-Shore Arts: Listening to the Earth Art of Stewardship at RiverArts by Mary McCoy

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An egret stalks through the dark water of a marsh in Karen Klinedinst’s iPhoneography print “The Scout.” With its painterly touches and eerie glow, it’s strange and dreamlike, and it gets immediately under your skin. As environmental artists and the curators of this year’s annual “The Art of Stewardship” show at RiverArts, Howard and I chose the theme “Listening to the Earth” to encourage artwork and poetry that, like Klinedinst’s, is inspired by paying close attention to the world around us. What we were looking for is the kind of honed awareness that germinates an open, honest understanding of our situation and responsibilities as part of the community of this earth.

Karen Klinedinst’s iPhoneography print “The Scout.

Does art have the power to effect change? It’s hard to forget an image like “The Scout.” It’s achingly beautiful, yet there’s death everywhere. Rotting vegetation and the skeletons of trees are part and parcel of this intricate and delicate environment. A marsh is a fertile place where fish and crabs spawn and egrets find abundant food, yet stay on high alert lest they, in turn, become dinner for an eagle or raccoon. The strength of Klinedinst’s image is that it takes in and reveals the wholeness of this place. The making of a powerful painting or a poem requires a journey into attentive awareness. It’s a fascinating and nourishing process not only for the artist but for viewers as well, if they, too, approach it with similar open, inquisitive mindfulness

Kate McGraw’s poem, “A Boy and his Dandelion,” may seem at first to be chiefly about a child’s sense of wonder at seeing the flower’s seeds fly into the air, but it’s much more. McGraw summons the thrust of the wind and the scents radiating from the boy’s warm body, skillfully pulling us into the physicality of the moment. She uses words to paint the gossamer, glinting fragility of the tufted seeds and the mystery of where they are going, complete with a hint of their procreative objective. The boy himself imagines them as paratroopers, bravely adventuring into unknown places, and with this, a tingle arises in the back of the mind. This is a primitive urge—to ascribe intention to inanimate objects, to think of them as having aspirations and emotions, in short, as having consciousness.

What leaps to mind is the beliefs of indigenous people in tree spirits, water spirits and the like. These are people who live intimately with the land, aware of its every mood and cycle and the intricacy of the relationships of its plants and animals. Like Klinedinst’s egret, they are wholly dependent on their environment. Far from being quaint and naïve, might their superstitions have a certain wisdom? If we think of animals and plants as having consciousness, however different from our own, we might pay more attention to the ways they live and how their interactions and well-being affect our own survival. Such an approach would develop empathy for species besides our own and encourage a developing understanding of the interdependence of all life on earth.

There’s a prickly sensation of taut vitality emanating from the antler forms in William Willis’s large painting. They feel alive and

Who’s Afraid of the Dark by William Willis

sentient. Behind them are half-hidden forms, perhaps an animal hide stretched to dry, a bowl, a doorway, an abstracted tree—layers of activity and history giving witness to Willis’s search to find vital force in his subject matter. There’s something almost scary about this painting which Willis acknowledges with the title “Who’s Afraid of the Dark.”

It’s actually quite unnerving to think that nature is alive and aware of us and that humans are by no means in control. Gary Irby succinctly calls up the creepy feeling of an animal watching from the shadows with the piercing eyes and bristling sticks of his sculpture “Nature’s Watching.” But even more powerfully, this work mischievously prods at the sense of guilt and looming doom that lurks in all of us in these days of runaway fossil fuel extraction, snowballing pollution and escalating climate change.

You might think that art and poetry about earth stewardship would tend to scold our profligate ways—or weep over them, but few of the works in this show could be classified as “protest art.” The closest are Irby’s “Nature’s Watching” and his ceramic pot with two talking heads conspicuously facing in opposite directions with the title “Discussing Selling our Environment.” Also in the running is Rebecca Clark’s “Oblivion” with its beach-goer blandly cocooned behind sunglasses and earbuds, oblivious to the devastations of storm and fire raging behind her.

Most of the show’s works are focused on exploring and celebrating the breadth of the subject: earth and its ecology. There are whales, domestic birds, wild birds, wild animals (deer, lions, elephants), insects, Eastern Shore waterscapes, and Antarctic ice. There is the vastness of huge clouded skies and the intimacy of a ladybug stalking aphids on a fragile flower.

Curiously, with the exception of Anita Kusick’s lush fields of flowers in “Gathering (Pike Farms – Conserved by Peconic Land Trust),” none of the works are about farming. Farmers are the principle stewards of land on the Eastern Shore, and it’s heartening to see more and more of them transitioning their land to organic from “conventional” farming (that is, planting Roundup-ready GMO crops managed with glyphosate and other chemicals). Likewise, it’s cheering to witness the widespread use of cover crops and forested shorelines to keep farm runoff out of waterways and to note the reintroduction of diverse crops and animal husbandry. Supported by a host of government programs, farmers are making a difference, as are hunters and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited that work to reestablish healthy habitats for wildlife.

“Nature’s Watching” by Gary Irby

In the call for submissions, we said “Art should bristle with energy and keep tugging at your thoughts.” It’s only when art has this kind of power to stimulate thought and encourage further investigation that it can trigger change for the better. The sense of childlike wonder that so many of these poems and artworks evoke is crucial in reshaping of our attitudes, and the edgy sense of danger in several of them acts as a much-needed spur to work for sustainable ways to live harmoniously with our earth.

If we fail in this, it’s serious. Life on earth will likely continue, though predications are that numerous species, including humans, will have disappeared and insects will be dominant. Quilter Christine Kamon chose to accompany her graceful “Dragonflies” with a quote from writer and artist Clive Barker that posits an idyllic future time when all traces of humans and our activities will be long gone and dragonflies and hummingbirds will flit in a golden afternoon. It’s a beautiful scene but one we’d like to postpone as long as possible.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Recommended reading:
David Abram’s Becoming Animal
David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain
Andy Goldsworthy’s Time

 

Exhibition Dates: April 4 – 25
RiverArts 
315 High Street, Suite 106
Chestertown, MD 21620 United States

Art Review: Joanne S. Scott at RiverArts by Mary McCoy

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Visiting Joanne Scott’s show, Elements, at RiverArts is almost like visiting her studio. On view through February 25, it’s a chance to see what this accomplished Chestertown artist is working on currently, but you also get a fascinating taste of her work over the past five decades.

Half the show presents recent work, intriguingly mixed with an equal number of works dating back as far as 1965. It’s a teasing glimpse, kind of a half retrospective, of Scott’s fresh and engaging work, and it makes you wish you could see more.

Deeply influenced by her many years of living near the water, both in the Chesapeake region and on Maine’s Monhegan Island, Scott is primarily a landscape painter. She explores both open vistas and intimate views of the living world, always experimenting with color, composition and ways of capturing the mood of each moment. Throughout her work, there’s a sense of awe at the beauty and pure aliveness of the natural world.

“Orme’s Buy Boat,” watercolor 1972

The broad marsh flooded with light in “River Marsh,” an acrylic painting from 2017, hums with vitality as the billowing, heat-hazed trees beyond lean inward as if in conversation with two luminous white clouds. In her close-up paintings of flowers, such as “Eight Poppies” from 1985, each blossom is an individual, full of energy and character. The effect is even more so in her three new poppy watercolors painted in 2017 where each flower is animated with sketchy pencil lines and crisp washes in delicate shades of pink casually but succinctly defining their papery petals.

In work that is all about close observation, Scott explores how shadow sculpts the deck of a buy boat, how leaves spread out to catch sunlight, and how the weightlessness of a luminous moon underscores the quietude of the nocturnal earth below. Her work has always hovered between realism and abstraction. Sheets of ice around a boat dissolve into washy fields of textured color, while the clouds towering over a flat Eastern Shore landscape become a study of color and radiant energy.

Part of the pleasure of Scott’s work is that she celebrates the things we love so much about the outdoors. There’s a warm, familiar feeling about her water-rounded pebbles, graceful boats and rippling water. Without pretension or romanticizing, she paints them in a clear, forthright way.

But while her work may seem effortless, there’s a great deal of skill and planning behind it, and it’s fun to scout out her methods in the underlying sketches and the layers of brushstrokes describing shimmering light and water. Through decades as a working artist and teacher of drawing and painting, Scott has honed her process, and there’s a sense throughout this show that she revels in finding both bold and nuanced ways to convey her experience of each scene. Perhaps that’s why she included “Belfast Series #3 Study and Print” from 1986. It offers a fascinating look at how the study, a confident pencil sketch of light and shadow falling across a gabled house, served as a planning tool for the print, an inviting aquatint etching.

“Heron Point Look Out,” a watercolor from 2011, says a lot about her skill in conveying her deep affection for our watery landscapes. In this snow scene, she captured a grove of slim trees glimpsed in a slow, graceful dance as if mimicking the marshy creek below as it winds out to the river. Masterfully simplifying her forms, a few strokes of gray wash convey a distant riverside house and the merest suggestion of Chestertown bridge beyond.

“Heron Point Look Out,” watercolor, 2011

There’s something about the work of an elder artist that is spare and radiant—look at de Kooning’s late paintings or Matisse’s cut-outs. Scott, too, has found this uncomplicated simplicity, and it’s a pleasure to share in her appreciation as she reveals our familiar world in pencil and paint.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

 

Spy Review: The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo by Mary McCoy

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In a burst of curatorial inspiration, the Academy Art Museum is presenting The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo, on view through February 25. The exhibit not only inaugurates the Museum’s new Artist-in-Residence program with Brooklyn printmaker and sculptor Emily Lombardo but also offers the rare chance to see a complete set of “Los Caprichos” by the famed Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

Pointedly taking on the traditional role of apprentice to the master, Lombardo set herself the daunting task of creating a set of 80 etchings, “The Caprichos,” matched one-on-one with the 80 in Goya’s series. On loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Los Caprichos” is a dark, acerbic commentary on the follies and depravities of Spanish society of Goya’s day. Late in the 18th century when most artists were busy pleasing their aristocratic patrons, Goya made the radical move of creating art as social commentary. The new genre, aimed at raising social awareness, smoldered along for a while, then from the 1960s onward spread like wildfire through all the arts.

In “Los Caprichos,” Goya explored every human foible from vanity and lust to abuse of power and the pitfalls of superstition. There are salacious bridegrooms and their avaricious brides, nannies terrorizing children with blood-curdling tales, vain and pretentious aristocrats, and strange animals and hobgoblins torturing people in their dreams.

Francisco de Goya, Fran[cis].co Goya y Lucientes, Pintor, Plate I from “Los Caprichos”, 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo, Emily Lombardo Printer, Plate I from “The Caprichos,” 2013, Etching and aquatint, Academy Art Museum, 2016.

Lombardo’s version is equally as dark as she explores a dizzying variety of issues. Far from getting bogged down in this enormous task, she approached it as an opportunity to develop an extraordinary range of cultural and personal commentary. Basing her compositions more or less on Goya’s, she put a contemporary spin on some of the very same issues, including the cultural norms of marriage, child-rearing, fame, and politics (Trump appears three times). With others, she makes broader leaps referencing the ever-present dangers of long-range missiles and nuclear war, the aggrandizement of celebrities, the Ku Klux Klan, and specifics such as the use of animals in scientific experiments, the vacuous nature of the art market, and the politics of gender in restroom use.

Given that there are 160 etchings in the exhibit, each with its own caption, it takes quite a lot of work to view and digest this show, but the art is fascinating and highly entertaining. And it’s amusing (or telling) to realize partway into it that both artists are manipulating a favorite human pastime. By nature, we love to gossip and gripe about the failings of our fellow humans.

Francisco De Goya, Spanish, 1746–1828 Might not the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “Los Caprichos,” 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo Does the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “The Caprichos,” Academy Art Museum, 2016.

We know perfectly well that gossiping is a bad habit, but these two artists turn this guilty pleasure on its ear with their unflinching cataloguing of the darkest and nastiest elements of human life. In the process, they force us to honestly confront the reality of human weakness.

It’s long been the role of the artist to step back and consider the human condition. Throughout the history of art, artists have sought to awaken understanding of it whether through celebrating the beauty and tragedies of life, the uplift of religious inspiration, or the complexity of human experience so compellingly revealed in such transcendent portraits as Rembrant’s paintings of his own face.

The Academy’s Artist-in-Residence program was designed as a time of concentrated “reflection, research, engagement and artistic production” free from the obligations and concerns of the artist’s everyday life. In awarding Lombardo this month-long opportunity, including the daily use of its printmaking studio, the Academy gave her the chance to focus her energies on her exploration of how art can shed light on the deep issues of the human condition. It was also a remarkable opportunity for visitors to get to know an engaged working artist both in her studio and through the printmaking workshops that she taught. In an era when artists are stereotyped as being aloof and disconnected, this kind of personal contact is especially valuable.

Almost as an antidote to the darkness of “The Caprichos,” Lombardo is also exhibiting “The Soothsayers,” a series of pale-hued, floating orbs spread across the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s atrium. Modeled on the 20-sided polyhedron that floats inside the familiar Magic 8 Ball toy used for divining the future at teenage sleepovers since the 1950s, these geometric orbs are made of folded marbled paper embossed with updated answers such as “Reset,” “Winter Is Coming,” “You Are Biased,” “You Are Needed,” and “The War Is Not Over.”

In these chaotic and discordant times, we could all use the wise advice of an oracle, but as none actually exists, we’d do well to follow Goya’s and Lombardo’s warnings. However we like to think of our time as enlightened, freed from racism, sexism and superstition, recent events prove that it may be every bit as corrupt, discriminatory, inequitable and fear-ridden as Goya’s more than two centuries ago.

Dark as both “Caprichos” are, both offer glimmers of hope. In Plate 43, where nightmare creatures taunt a sleeping figure, Goya’s caption reads, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.” In a culture which insists, as most cultures do, that it’s heretical to question the status quo, it’s actually the most important thing to do. Knowing full well that we can’t rely on oracles or on politicians, it’s vital to use the arts and every other means to question, hone awareness and cultivate clear and honest understanding. This process is the only thing that will keep history from continually repeating itself, that is, the only thing that will save us from ourselves.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

 

 

 

Art Review: WarFront/HomeFront at the Kent County Arts Council Gallery

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Silhouetted against a pinkish-red background, several doves perch on a rifle held high by a soldier’s arm. This poignant image is just one of many in “WarFront/HomeFront, Through the Eyes of Our Military” on view through December 3 at Kent County Arts Council. After languishing for years, the former Town Arts Building is open again and hosting a show that vividly celebrates the healing power of art.

Whether the glowing red background connotes blood and fiery violence or the radiant pink blush of sunrise, hope and love is not clear, and the tension behind this riddle tells the terrible truth that while war is waged to bring peace, peace never lasts.

“Birds over Peace,” Patrick Sargent (U. S. Air Force), screen-print on paper made from Walter Reed hospital scrubs, 13 ½ x 6 ½ inches, 2015

Created by Patrick Sargent, an Air Force veteran, at a workshop at Walter Reed National Military Center, “Birds over Peace” was screen-printed on paper made from worn-out scrubs from the hospital. Many of the show’s works were created in similar workshops, and many use handmade paper pulped from military uniforms by recovering soldiers in a powerful metaphor of transformation paralleling the soldiers’ transformative healing through making art.

“WarFront/HomeFront” is a heart-rending, provocative and soulfully beautiful exhibit drawn from the 600 works in the ART/ifacts Collection of The Arts & The Military, a grassroots organization that actively engages wounded veterans in the arts. They are joined by drawings and paintings of wounded soldiers from the Joe Bonham Project by artists from the Society of Illustrators and the International Society of War Artists.

Little boys love to play with toy soldiers, but the melted and mutilated toy soldiers scattered across Malachi Muncy’s “To Play Army” will never be played with again. The words scrawled across the paper pulp painting where they are imbedded blurt out a painful message that recurs throughout this show, “I Didn’t Know What It Meant To Play Army.”

“To Play Army,” Malachi Muncy (U. S. Army), pulp panting and ink with toy Army men embedded in paper made from pulped military uniforms, 11 x 17 inches, 2013

Military service was romanticized when Muncy was growing up as an Army brat, and like many young people with limited prospects, whether white, black, Latino or Native American, he chose the military as a way to obtain training and education. After two deployments to Iraq and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, he has turned to art, as well as other therapies, for healing.

Art engages experience on many levels. The viscous feeling of clay between the fingers and the sweep of an arm brushing color across a piece of paper are strongly physical. The artworks these actions create stimulate both eyes and brain in a process that probes memory and belief, digesting experience and feeling in order to work toward understanding.

Chosen by Guest Curator Tara Tappert, Executive Director of The Arts & The Military, and KCAC Co-Executive Director John Schratwieser, the exhibit includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, poetry, found object art, and many handmade paper works created from old uniforms. It’s a show in which art has a double mission, serving both as a therapeutic process and as a compelling advocacy tool teaching visitors about the inward experiences of individuals in the military.

It’s in some of the Joe Bonham Project drawings that personal stories come to life with intensely affecting strength. Civilian illustrator Jeffery Fisher’s watercolor “A Fitful Sleep” is a powerful image of a wounded soldier, arm bandaged, sheets pulled into sweeping diagonals, grimacing face turned away. The sense of aloneness in his nightmarish physical and mental pain is palpable.

“A Fitful Sleep,” Jeffrey Fisher (Civilian), watercolor and graphite on paper, 27 ½ x 18 inches, 2012

Through the process of creating, these wounded soldiers are able to discover ways to examine and express their wartime experiences in a safe and nourishing atmosphere. In one of the exhibit’s most inspired works, visitors may do the same. Across the gallery’s double windows hang several pairs of combat boots. These regulation boots have obviously been worn—despite the mandatory spit shine, they are scuffed and creased, each by an individual soldier. (No one wears a pair of boots in the same way as anyone else, as Van Gogh’s paintings attest.) Visitors are invited to write wishes, prayers or stories on paper provided and put them into the boots. Just a few days into the show, they were already brimming with handwritten notes which, at the end of the show, will be added to those collected from previous exhibits of the ART/ifacts Collection.

Interaction is crucial to the process of art, as it is to the process of healing. Wounded veterans worked together to pulp old uniforms into paper, to pose for drawings, and to organize workshops. It took great courage for them to open up through art to work on their own healing, and it takes courage to experience this show, but do it. You’ll be richer for the experience.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Art Review: Review: Julie Wills at the Kohl by Mary McCoy

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Wishes are weightless, ephemeral things, however urgent and heartfelt. We know perfectly well that they won’t get us anywhere, yet we still make a wish when we blow out our birthday candles or see the first star come out at night. In her exhibit, “Wishes Are Horses,” on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through October 22, Julie Wills deftly shifts the gloomy phrase “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” to hopefulness with a simple change of verb.

Julie Wills, “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers),” driftwood, found coins & domestic debris, party lights, birthday candles, matchsticks, ribbon, cloth, tobacco & twine on linen-covered supports, 54″ x 77″ x 11

The first thing you see at the exhibit’s entrance is a magical horse made of a piece of driftwood heaped with tobacco bundles and a string of lights called “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers).” Burnt matches and birthday candles provisionally stand in for its ears and mane along with a few coins and washers hammered into the weathered wood. It’s a kind of roundup of talismans ranging from ancient Greek to Native American, underscored by the words “wishing on every thing in sight” etched onto some of the lighted bulbs.

This sympathetic nod to the irrational urge to wish sets the stage for a deeply personal look at human yearnings so tender that we tend to keep them secret and unspoken. Like many artists before her, including González-Torres with his bare light bulbs evoking festivity, inspiration, revelation and impermanence, Wills uses the symbolic and associative power of found objects to summon up sensations and snippets of memory. Again and again, her choices of basic, no-frills materials familiar from earliest childhood trigger curiosity and rouse thoughts of how we might see things a little differently.

Julie Wills, “Zodiac (book of hours),” sandpaper and pencil on Stonehenge drawing paper, 22″ x 22″glacial pace of the changes we desire most dearly

Mounted on an old shipping palette spray-painted black, a spherical lightbulb stands in for the moon and a severed bird’s wing calls freedom and flight to mind. Wills often layers bits of text into her works, and around the bulb are a few words about the act of soaring. A feeling of beauty and uplift arises but it’s an odd sensation given that it’s stirred by a slightly disheveled bit of feathers and bone and a lightbulb unabashedly trailing its power cord. How the flagrant homeliness of this sculpture creates such magic is a puzzle, not unlike a Zen koan, and it has the same illogical effect of opening a previously unknown part of one’s mind.

Many of the show’s works are about the stars and how we like to gaze at these bright pinpricks hovering in the infinite sky and how we like to wish on them. The night sky is a place of dreaming, of possibilities, of the ancient stories playing out with the seasonal shifting of the stars overhead. But Wills brings it down to earth in funny, childlike ways. The dark, circular skies flecked with tiny stars appearing throughout the exhibit turn out, on closer inspection, to be nothing but worn black sandpaper. It has a gritty texture. It’s very physical. It’s nothing like the untouchable, unreachable midnight sky.

Magical thinking is what’s behind this show, but it’s very self-aware magical thinking. Wills is not concerned with seducing the eye with beautiful or inspiring images but with conjuring understanding from bits of the mundane world we inhabit day after day. Musing on these works, the feeling arises that the mechanisms of understanding life derive from living itself but that it takes a very pointed awareness to sort them out.

Do wishes work? Wills’s optimism about the answer shows in a horizontal row of lightbulbs etched with the words “The world tells me I’m darkness but I know I am light.” Confidence begets the power to act. It’s personal conviction channeled with focus and energy that keeps us wishing and working to make our wishes come true.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

 

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