Lesa Cook’s terra cotta sculpture “Bacchus as Uninvited Houseguest” (2015) comes as advertised. Naked per custom, the Roman god of wine lies on a couch. A laurel wreath and grapes adorn his head. He holds a cup in his hand; his gut is appropriately proportioned for the patron saint of gluttony. The mustachioed figure resembles a familiar uncle, not a denizen of Olympus.
At first glance, the sculpture is comical. Can a god really overstay his or her welcome or be bound by conventional houseguest etiquette? But the work―one of 60 on display at UMUC’s Third Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition―is serious. It references alcoholism and other addictions.
“I was struck by the human qualities of the [Greek and Roman] gods, [by] their jealousies and passions, their strengths and shortcomings,” Cook wrote in the exhibition’s catalog. “I started to wonder what would happen if they were put in a modern context.” Bacchus, she added, is the “guy who comes in and makes himself a little too much at home.”
Cook’s work is one of several sculptures in the highly diverse exhibit, which features collages, textiles, paintings, drawings, photography and other media.
Anthony Stellaccio’s “Drifter (Home)” (2014), a work of clay that counts cemetery dirt among its materials, received an honorable mention.
Bernard Brooks’ “The Mango Lady” (2013), an oil painting on canvas that incorporates collaged fabrics and jewelry―a bracelet and an earring―received a juror recognition.
And Gloria Kirk employs African cloths, felt, leather, copper sheeting, owl pellets, and paper beads to join the traditions of Nigeria’s Yoruba and Gabon’s Kota people in her “Egungun Masquerade Ensemble” (2011.)
Other works, like Gail Nickells’ “Watermelon” (2014), reference traditional European paintings.
Nickell’s still life evokes 17th-century Dutch still-life painting, down to the fly on a piece of fruit.
It’s the sort of wide variety that curators and jurors are afforded when they receive many more submissions than they could possibly exhibit.
The show was juried by artist Nina Chung Dwyer, professor of art at Montgomery College; Gretchen Schermerhorn, artistic director of Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, Hyattsville, Maryland; and Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, the director and curator of collections at Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia.
It features a selected work by each of 60 artists from across Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia and, according to UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key, the competition was tight this year. Jurists culled the 60 showcased works from 325 entries.
Key declined to name a favorite piece in a sea of compelling works but said Steven Dobbin’s “I Repeat Myself” (2016) made a particular impression on him. The work, a neon sign that blinks on and off with the words that make up the title, is installed at the bottom of a staircase leading to the UMUC Arts Program gallery on the lower level of the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. It received a juror recognition.
The work was not yet lit when Key first saw it installed, so he wondered what it would be like. But when it was switched on, he connected to it personally.
“It not only draws your attention because it’s [a] light, flashing, and red but also [because of] the language itself. ‘I repeat,’” he said.
“As a viewer, I repeat what? I begin to think, personally, what am I repeating? What am I doing? I tend to like works that engage me and that I bring myself into,” Key said.
Jon West-Bey, UMUC Arts Program curator, also declined to single one work out as superior to the rest, but said he is fascinated by the way that Fabiola Alvarez Yurcisin assigns color to the different sculptural elements in her piece “Homeland Security Advisory System” (2013) to chart both the progression from a secure to threatened state―and to illustrate that security and threat reside in close proximity.
The work, which received a second place and a juror’s choice award, hangs from the ceiling and literally towers over the rest of the show from a prime vantage point for surveillance. Its red, orange, yellow, green, and blue “houses,” resembling bird cages, are made of aluminum, acrylic paint, colored ribbons, and string.
Said West-Bey, the sculpture relates to the original, color-coded threat advisory system administered by the Department of Homeland Security beginning in early 2003, in which green and red represented low and extreme levels of threat, respectively. In 2011, the National Terrorism Advisory System replaced the color-coded system.
“It’s about the post-9/11 era, with homeland security being color-coded as something being safe or high alert,” West-Bey said. “It’s really looking at the aesthetics of that.”
The “houses” in Yurcisin’s work surround each other, and one can find a sort of safety in the logic of that arrangement. But some are clearly colored to signify safety, while others are more dangerous. “It’s a really interesting play on that,” West-Bey said.
In contrast, the president's best-of-show award winner "Bear Carver" (2015) by Mike McConnell, shows a somewhat abstracted landscape. A figure, perhaps with earmuffs, appears to chop a tree. Logs are stacked to the right; a ladder leads out of the picture frame; and some sort of animal dangles upside down. In the background, a double-helix shape emerges from among trees, and a pickup truck overlooks a waterfall.
The work, according to the exhibit catalog, is based on a bicycle trip the artist took in Northern California. "Bears carved from local redwood are seemingly everywhere," McConnell wrote. "Procreation by chainsaw."
Overall, in an era in which other institutions engage in this sort of exhibition less and less, the Biennial Maryland Regional Exhibit is increasingly important for the university.
“There’s a whole group of artists out there that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to as an arts program, and they wouldn’t have a place to show their works,” Key said. “We’ve gotten to know a lot of artists that we didn’t know about.”