Now in its 15th year, The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards is one of the first regional art competitions with the largest prizes given to honor visual artists from Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. This year there were eight finalists whose work is now installed in Gallery B, a nonprofit art gallery managed by the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District and the Bethesda Urban Partnership. Each year a new panel of local artists is invited to review the usually large number of submissions, select the finalists, and name the prize winners. This process permits each jury panel to leave its own stamp on the outcome, often with a definitive sense of partiality toward certain trends in contemporary expression. It is also they who select the specific works installed in the show, the only restriction being an equal amount of space given to each finalist.
There were no painters among this year’s finalists, the kind of result that had motivated philanthropist Carol Trawick, founder and supporter of the Prize, to create a separate annual painting competition in 2004, with equally generous awards. This has not prevented painters from winning both competitions, but in recent years the awards have been given to artists working in various other media.
Larry Cook was recipient of “Best in Show” with a cash prize of ten thousand dollars. An emerging artist who has already been a Hamiltonian Fellow and recipient of other awards, as an African-American, Cook focuses on creating work that, he writes, “challenges the viewer to think critically about the constructs of blackness.” In addition he aims at “interpreting the complex condition of Black Americans.” This may indeed be Cook’s aim—at the opening reception he stated as much. However, the problem here is that at least two of the works in the Trawick exhibit date from 2014, were a part of his solo exhibition held at Hamiltonian in May, 2015, and were the object of three published reviews at that time, as well as a large amount of public reaction to them. While the artist may aim to stimulate conversation about serious issues of race that are certainly still current, the selection of works that have already been seen and critically discussed to represent him is surprising. In their June 2015 reviews, both Kriston Capps (Washington CityPaper) and Eric Hope (East City Art) raised the question of where Cook’s art would be headed. Mark Jenkins (Washington Post) pointed out that his video Stockholm Syndrome (also the title of the 2015 Hamiltonian exhibit) recalled African-American activist agenda of the late 60s and 70s, finding it “curious” that Cook “thinks this sort of consciousness-raising is still necessary.” The Trawick jurors selected the pieces in this show based on the artist’s submission of ten digital images. Was there no new body of work evident in that submission? Was Stockholm Syndrome it for the young artist? The gallery checklist gives the viewer no information about the work other than title, medium and dimensions. No dates, and nothing more than the generalized comments, as fine as they may sound, found in the artist’s short statement available in a handout.
My point here is that Cook’s work in the show not only represents a repeat performance of the same content which, even in it first exhibition repeated strategies and ideas that are already worn fairly thin, but that, as before, the themes are heavy-handed and unresolved. Stockholm Syndrome, the dual channel video loop lasting nearly two minutes, appropriates clips from Roots and Twelve Years a Slave showing groups of black slaves looking out at the viewer. These are juxtaposed with scenes of contemporary crowds of mixed races reacting to the election of President Obama in 2008. The “post-racial age” that this was supposed to incept has clearly never happened, and the suggestion is, perhaps, that the underlying wrongs of slavery are so ingrained that to go beyond them is a titanic task that has yet to be accomplished. That’s fine. But where is the innovation in such an obvious conclusion? In a second work, the phrase SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK is spelled out in almost ten feet of large white capital neon letters. Surely we all know about this excuse for racism and putting it in large white letters doesn’t make it any more ironic. I think of the neon pieces of Glenn Ligon as a comparison. In a diverse body of work including neon sculpture, Ligon actually critiques the power of words to represent our present moment in history from the standpoint of an African-American artist. As Erika Doss has recently written, “his text-based art interrogates common or mainstream assumptions about certain American subjects and histories, including those pertaining to race and racial identity, questioning how they become meaningful and how those meanings change over time.” If this is Cook’s aim as well, his product falls short of the mark.
Second prize winner Cindy Cheng makes elaborate three-dimensional constructions that employ a nuanced formal language that draws on both modern precedents and personal history. Her Signal/Lookout, her only work in the show, is both attractive and interesting. It immediately reminded me of Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist construction The Palace at 4 AM (1932, MoMA). Like that work, Cheng’s piece seems a landscape where the irrationality of dreams is represented by forms that seem at once playful and dangerous. The work implies a fluid space, something reminiscent of a stage set, where the parts could be assembled and re-assembled, made and unmade. The artist grew up in different parts of the world, and worked with discarded toys and found objects from childhood. That sensibility is sharpened with a fine control of exact placement, and Cheng’s grounding in drawing is strongly evident.
Third prize was granted to Renée Rendine whose cocoon-like construction was part of a performance recorded in Gallery B before the opening. The video is displayed alongside her “sculptural costume”. Fascinated by the way in which insects encase themselves for protection or metamorphosis, the video shows the artist entering the structure made of painted paper plates, cable ties, water-soluble plastic, steel, plastic, glue, latex and water. Its title, breach, refers to the breaking of the plastic windows that were painstakingly inserted into each of the paper plates (that appear to number in the hundreds), using a water balloon. The intent here is to suggest the work of insects, but it does not seem that any political commentary on the environment was intended. The process of destroying the windows with a repeated action alludes, the artist writes, to cannibalism. Regardless, the large pink object sits on the floor luring the viewer to get inside it.
Although not a winner, the work of Michele Montalbano caught my eye. One of Those Flamboyant Patterns Committing Every Artistic Sin is a layered collage installed directly on the gallery wall. This is one of a series of related works titled The Yellow Wallpaper taken from the eponymous story published by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. A woman suffering from depression is prescribed a “rest cure” by her physician husband. This involves being trapped in a bedroom in which the walls were covered with patterned yellow wallpaper, and where she is not permitted to do anything. Soon she begins to see strange and frightening shapes peeking out through the patterns. The idea motivated Montalbano to experiment with cutting up wallpapers, sewing and collaging bits that are partially seen behind the main design. The psychological narrative doesn’t overwhelm the formal interest in these collages, including others in the series not on display in the Trawick show.
Giulia Piera Livi was the Young Artist award recipient for her minimalist structures and installations. Sensitive to colors that are intended to leave the viewer with “feelings of nostalgia and warmth, yet slight unease,” she painted one small wall dividing the windows of the gallery a light pink. The same color is applied to a low wooden box on the floor in front of it, connected by a pink wire and electric plug. The box is filled with sand tinged with food coloring. The title is Play Here. It doesn’t light up, and there’s no switch to account for it being plugged in. While it’s not the most exciting work, it is compelling in a strange way. A subtle feeling of irony provokes a smile, and perhaps, a little confusion.
 Erika Doss, American Art of the 20th-21st Centuries, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, p. xxv.
The 2017 Trawick finalists’ works is on view September 6-30, 2017 in downtown Bethesda at Gallery B, located at 7700 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite E.