East City Art Reviews—2022 Trawick Prize Finalists Exhibition at Gallery B

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on September 13, 2022

Examples of work by the eight finalists of the Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards are on view in the light-filled Gallery B in downtown Bethesda.  The competition, which has become an annual event, receives large numbers of submissions from a wide spectrum of local artists from around the region.  It is effectively unique in its prize structure, offering a $10,000 award for the top prize, with the second and third dropping to 2,000 and 1,000 respectively.  As such, while it encourages young, emerging artists to compete—there is also a Young Artist category for a winner under 30—and it also draws those in more established stages of their careers.  The resulting show of finalists reflects these differences with a wide range of approaches and materials competing for viewers’ attention.

Robert Mertens, Breathe, fiber and sound installation, 2021-22. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

To my mind the most interesting and arresting work in the exhibit is that of fiber and sound artist Robert Mertens who placed second.  With a degree in both disciplines, Mertens works in many materials, but the three works in this show are from a series titled Archaeology of the Body.  Made from raw wool and ungalvanized steel forms, they are crocheted and worked on a floor loom to create shapes that are connotative of human organs.  Breathe, the largest in the group suspended about eight feet from the ceiling, is a collection of pod forms in a hanging bouquet that must allude to cell structures in the lungs. They are soft to the touch, but also firm.  Issuing from inside the pods is a loud sound of human breathing.  It is hard to describe the effect of this sculpture.  The sound gives it a dimension of life to it, which in turn creates both a strong attraction and a strange repulsion.  For the artist, who was diagnosed with cancer recently, it is a meditation on the strength, but also the fragility and eventual dissolution of the human body.   The ungalvanized steel forms included in the woven wool, which the artist subjects to a wet felting process, are slowly rusting.  This will gradually “lead to the ‘death’ of the form over time.”[1] The two smaller works Corpus Midden #2 and #4 are modeled from images of tumors, but are strangely beautiful. One of them emits a heartbeat, which, along with the loud breathing sound, rounds out the underlying ironic character of the installation.[2] 

Caryn Martin, Falls to Flames II, ink and acrylic on tracing paper, 2022.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Baltimore-based multi-media artist Caryn Martin took third prize.  Her contribution to this exhibit is a large installation work that reflects the artist’s interest in landscape, often as a metaphor for emotion, as well as her concern for the effects of climate change on the environment.  Thus, Falls to Flames II is also deeply ironic in the beauty of the tracing paper construction juxtaposed to its dark message.  On first glance, the work resembles a rococo gown with a train and ruffles, its soft coloring on the translucent paper shifting from blue to deep red as it works its way up the wall.  From the title one becomes aware that what that movement represents is the shift from a waterfall landscape to one in flames.  This installation is a smaller version of Falls to Flames that is 33 feet in width, but still elegantly makes the point.[3] 

M.K. Bailey, Tulip Fever Dream, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″, 2022.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Paintings by M.K. Bailey show this emerging artist’s interest in the female body in older art, as well as “the line between ironically self-aware kitsch and a genuinely over-the-top feminine aesthetic.”[4] Work from her recent paintings series Secret Garden include digital drawings of figures from older art set into lush landscapes of flat acrylic forms with a freedom from the restrictions of local color that would make Matisse smile.  I sensed a strong interest in Matisse in her work, especially in analogies to works like his Bonheur de Vivre of 1905.

Tulip Fever Dream is a good example of this.  Embedded among lavender trees and tulips, the sleeping figure might have been adapted from the sleeping nude in the foreground of Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (1524), but instead is based on a descendant of that figure: Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863) which is far more lasciviously exposed.  Bailey treatment of the only partial figure seems to wrest it from that world and place it inside that feminine aesthetic to which she refers in her statement.

Marcia Haffmans, Living Text, from the ongoing project Script from Within. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

I also found non-winner Marcia Haffmans’ installation very compelling from both a conceptual and formal point of view.  An artist with bodies of work in different media and styles, Living Text is part of an ongoing project of recording the writings of incarcerated women.  She first did this over a three year period in Minnesota, and was recently the recipient of a grant to carry out a similar work in Richmond, VA.  She was inspired to work with texts, and to “explore textural dimensions with materials,” when she received her grandmother’s diary written as Haffmans’ native Netherlands was being invaded in 1940.  The way that the writing, not only the content but the handwriting itself, made her grandmother present, as well as her suffering hiding from the Germans had a profound effect on the artist.  So, too, the writing of these living women, encouraged to write about themselves and their experiences, is meant to bring them to the viewer’s consciousness.  Visually, the work is fascinating.  Multiple sheets of translucent polymer are piled up in stacks held together by brass rods and suspended from the ceiling like cradles.  Each sheet has the writing transcribed in black or white ink.  That Duchampian temptation to pull them out to read them is, of course, frustrated—a metaphor, I think, for the situation of the imprisoned women.

Judith Pratt, Cenotaph (on the floor) and Point of Origin I (wall, right), acrylic paint and acrylic ink on Lenox 100 paper, Cenotaph, also wood and foam core elements, c. 2020-2022.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Virginia native Judith Pratt is represented here with two large paper works, one fully three dimensional, the other a combination of painting and sculpture.  Of the two, Cenotaph is perhaps the more intriguing.  Laying on a slanted base, the paper banded form has two blocks inside that suggest a recumbent human figure.  A cenotaph is a tomb or a monument erected to honor a person, or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere.  In an online video Pratt has explained that she exclusively uses Lenox 100 paper to create these works because it is made of 100% cotton, and thus is an allusion to the slaves who worked the cotton fields in Virginia and elsewhere in the south.  The artist is acutely aware of the difficulties of Virginia’s past, and through an exploration of both the beauty and the pain of that history, hopes to come to terms with it.  Thus, the series Point of Origin, that is, the place of her upbringing is seen through the lens of her own history as an artist in this area.

Finally, WonJung Choi was judged “Best in Show,” although from the work displayed here it would be hard to understand why.  Originally from Seoul, Korea, Choi is interested in identity, migration, mutation and evolution of life forms, but her Family Tree, based on a fantasy mating of two famous prehistoric sculptures, both among the oldest specimens of art made by humans, is conceptually immature at best, and certainly fails to project the kind of identity issues that may have been her intent.

The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards Finalists, Sept. 8 – Oct. 2, 2022, Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite E, until October 2. Gallery hours for the duration of the exhibit will be Thursday-Sunday, 12 – 5pm.  For more information, www.bethesda.org or call 301-215-6660.


Caption for banner image: M.K. Bailey, Garden of Earthly Delights II, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″, 2022. Photo artist.

[1] Artist’s statement concerning this body of work: https://robertmertensartist.com/section/507012-Archeology-of-the-Body.html

[2] A midden is defined as a kitchen trash heap usually composed of organic materials.

[3] Cf. the artist’s website https://www.carynmartin.com/unfolding?lightbox=dataItem-l1jgkd5i

[4] Artist’s statement.