The annual Bethesda Painting Awards have been decided, and the exhibition of selected works by each of the eight finalists is currently at Gallery B in Bethesda. Sponsored by Carol Trawick, these awards carry significant prizes, in particular the first prize of ten thousand dollars. The second slides to two thousand, and the third to one. One of two similar competitions held each year, this one is focused on painting as opposed to contemporary art more generally. A point of interest this year is the fact that nearly all the paintings in this show are figurative to a greater or lesser degree.
The painting competition is open to artists from Maryland, Virginia and the District, and, as in the past, hundreds applied. The top prize winner, Megan Lewis, is a professional illustrator and mural painter. Her paintings in this show are portraits of Black men done in thickly applied oil and acrylic, their titles suggesting emotional states or personality rather than names. While two of her works represented here are painted on printed fabric, leaving much of the surface unpainted, Deep, from 2020 is not, and is certainly the strongest of the three.
Among the finalists who did not win any of the prizes, my selection is Edmund Praybe. Based on the three examples of his work here, it is evident that Praybe, while working from direct observation, is interested in rather more complex relationships between surface appearances and underlying compositional structure. In the artist’s own words, he is “concerned with the convergence of perception and abstraction” seeking “the common ground between maintaining a fidelity to the observed world expressed in paint and developing carefully arranged surface divisions of geometry, color and tone.” Moreover, the content of the paintings carefully combines objects that provoke memory and are subtly chosen to seem random, but together express a theme or narrative. Again, in the artist’s own words, the things he paints “have all been held on to over many years, not only for their tactile qualities, but for their attachments to certain memories, places and people.”
Excavating the Present, a large canvas with an array of such objects, presents the still life seen from above so that the composition goes up the picture plane in an unusual perspective. Suddenly the woman lying on the blanket in the upper left appears, the bright blue of her blouse echoing the blue printed fabric on the upper right like two points of a downward triangle that seems to underline this composition with a bit of hidden geometry—a common characteristic of Renaissance painting. The surface is not smooth, as it may seem in a digital image. It is tactile and scumbled in places, not specifically descriptive of individual materials—ceramic, fabric, metal, etc.—but conveying a sense of touch. Praybe’s For Morpheus contains hints of an underlying theme of sleep, from the respirator mask and work gloves taken off to a card in the upper left marked “Sandman”. A casual look at other works by the artist reveals that he sometimes oscillates between abstraction and representation, but in the works here he appears to have achieved a delicate balance that is visually fascinating.
Amy Boone-McCreesh took second place. For some years now this Baltimore-based artist has been challenging questions of “good taste” and the definition of “high art” with her painted collages and deliberately decorative, maximalist and feminist aesthetic. Her work stands out in the exhibit with its bright, highly saturated colors and abstract compositions, although one of her pieces in this show, City Garden (2021) is fairly representative of a house front seen behind a fence. Everything looks playful and light. Nevertheless, there’s much more there than a first glance might suggest.
I read the first two sentences of the artist’s statement: “The signifiers of status and class present themselves culturally in overt and nuanced ways. Decoration is subversive…”. My first thought was “I haven’t read anything like that since Gauguin!”—but then it hit me what Boone-McCreesh is doing here. Decoration, and the deliberately feminine and maximalist (as opposed to the very masculine minimalist) are subversive. Presented in the high art context of the art gallery, Boone-McCreesh’s works are meant to be as subversive as Nancy Graves’s Camels at the Whitney were in 1969. Even more so were Graves’s constructions made of sticks and poles, but decorated with flowers and leaves like the amazing Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms of 1971. This, and other works by Graves that she gave serious, minimalist titles, were the consummate anti-minimalist statement, and consequently, stridently feminist. Painting her bronzes in bright colors, and representing flowers and butterflies at a time when male artists were dominating the field with mute boxes was both daring and undermining of that domination.
Boone-McCreesh is still fighting that battle, but is also acutely aware of the struggles for equality and equity of our times. Her large Status Symbols with its bows and paper ribbons seems to present a conundrum, but its meaning can be understood from the artist’s intent. Again, from her statement: “Decoration is subversive, even polarizing. It quickly identifies taste, class, and access.” In her work she employs “handmade processes [to] create a direct shift in value and labor. These decisions aim to mimic the seemingly arbitrary lines that are drawn in cultural markers of luxury, mass production and the defining features of access.” Clearly, this work is both visually attractive and intellectually challenging.
Somewhat difficult to divine were the aesthetic grounds for third place winner Marybeth Chew. Given, the ideas behind her work are conceptually intriguing. With an interest in film, television and commercial images, Chew selects and recombines them in dense compositions that explore the implications of their content. The problem is that, as a painter, her handling is strangely tentative at best. Chew’s style varies broadly by subject, usually a characteristic of student level work.
As far as my suggestion for third place in this show, I would have selected Ryan Syrell. His very large Ninth Wave stands out for its brilliant palette and Fauve/Cubist abstraction reminiscent of Matisse and perhaps the late Braque. Syrell concentrates on the simple things and actions that make up an ordinary life. He combines memories of these into compositions that are not planned, trying to get the sense of the way they jumble together, their “overlapping timescales”,  running together as memory often does. While the viewer is drawn to the painting because of its abstracted forms and bright colors, its underlying personal narrative can become slowly apparent with continued looking.
Bethesda Painting Awards, June 3 – 26, 2021, Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave. (on the Plaza), Gallery Hours: Thursday – Saturday, 12 – 5 PM. For more information, www.bethesda.org or 301-215-6660.
 Artist’s statement to the exhibit.
 Artist’s statement to the exhibit.