Two men—one with a rainbow button pinned to his denim shirt—stand in an unusual pose, set before a blindingly bright background. The man on the right rests his chin on his left fist, almost a dead ringer for Rodin’s “Thinker,” although his fist rests on the other man’s left shoulder. The latter, who wears his long hair in a beaded braid, dangles his left arm at his side, while his right cradles his black bag. The two are clearly a couple, although their posture suggests the kind of informality and unsmiling expression that rarely is the stuff of posed selfies these days.
That, said artist Scott Ponemone, is the point. His large watercolor-on-paper painting “Charlie and Tim” (2019) won the president’s Best in Show award at the “4th Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition,” known as the BMRE, on display through March 15 at University of Maryland Global Campus. Ponemone on hand for the exhibit’s opening reception was interviewed while standing beside his winning work.
“I watch people for a little bit to see how they work as a couple. The whole series involves couples,” said Ponemone, who finds his subjects in the street and at art museums, photographs them, then uses those images as the basis for his paintings. He captured the image of Charlie and Tim “ after the gay pride parade in Baltimore this past summer.”
Ponemone said he often shows would-be subjects photos stored on his phone of prior works from his couples series when he explains his artistic process. “Sometimes, the first time people pose they’re stiff and they smile, and then I say, ‘Don’t smile.’ I want to see the contact in the face, and how you work. I say, ‘I saw you guys. You know each other.’”
Charlie and Tim were unposed, and their second take was the one that Ponemone captured in the painting. “I only take two or three pictures at a time,” he said. “This is what happened.”
Ponemone’s painting is one of 67 works in the exhibit that were culled—with great difficulty by the judges, said Eric Key, arts program director at UMGC—from 567 submissions by more than 200 artists. In his commentary in the exhibition catalog, Key wrote that he was happy he didn’t have to be involved in deciding which submissions made the show, given that they were “extremely strong.” He added that the show was initially intended to display 55 works, but given the quality of entries, an extra dozen was added.
“This is probably the first year that we had such strong work,” Key said.
Ponemone explained that he intentionally leaves out the backgrounds in his paintings because including them “fixes people in that rectangle. I want people to come forward.” He added, “I try to show an individual’s dignity.” Those statements also articulate the broader exhibit’s approach.
In his remarks in the exhibit catalog, UMGC President Javier Miyares wrote that the BRME rewards “the creativity and vision of artists in Maryland, Northern Virginia, and the District of Columbia” and introduces those works “to broader and more diverse audiences, both locally and regionally.” In the catalog, Key noted as well that the show is particularly exciting because it “provides the UMGC Arts Program with an opportunity to learn about artists from all over our community—many of whom are new to us.”
“The work always evolves as I’m working on it,” he said. “But it usually starts with an impetus of an idea.
Like Ponemone, he gave the interview in front of his painting to better point out aspects of his work. “In this case, I had started to do the shapes at the top, which sort of looked like a carnival.” The yellow humps, not quite McDonald’s golden arches, evoke, perhaps, circus tents. Elsewhere is a studio rag, a t-shirt that says Marino 07 from his brother-in-law’s bachelor party.
“I like the type, so I had torn it up for a rag. As I was using it, I just kind of liked the patina and the look of it,” he said. “The concept started coming from that. On the front of the t-shirt, it said, ‘Man of the Year.’ He was like the man of the year because it was his bachelor party.”
Bohlander revealed that the painting covers up an older picture of a figure that he made in high school. That kind of rebirth or repurposing is also at play in another gripping work in the exhibit, David Knopp’s sculpture “Phoenix” (2019), made of laminated Baltic birch plywood.
Knopp started creating these types of sculptures back in the late 1970s when he picked up a book about making modern furniture and he found artists making stack lamination and carving. “I thought, ‘I can do that,’” he said. “‘I’ll give that a try.’” The technique involves stacking individual pieces of wood and then smoothing out the surface. The works aren’t hollow on the inside, and “Phoenix” weighs over 100 pounds.
“Everybody wants a piece in the family,” he said of his work, which has an elegant softness to it.
The title “Phoenix” came to him after he completed the work. “I usually don’t name them, but it helps when you’re submitting to shows,” he said. The sculpture appears to emerge from the ground and has an organic feel to it, evoking the mythical phoenix, a regenerating fiery bird.
LED lights, nearly hidden beneath upper “lips” on the sculpture, bathe the work in soft light. And, like the mythical bird, this sculptural “Phoenix” appears to emanate its own light. That ties it in with the exhibit at large, which encompasses a wide range of works diverse in type, medium and style. Many, upon close inspection, appear to shine brightly and mysteriously from within.