East City Art Reviews—The Bethesda Painting Awards 2020

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on October 13, 2020

The annual painting competition, the Bethesda Painting Awards, sponsored by the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation was postponed from its usual spring date, and the work of the eight finalists is now on view at Gallery B in Bethesda through the end of October 2020.  The quality and character of the outcome of each of these competitions has varied widely over the years, largely because of the insistence on new jurors for each.  Moreover, although it tends to draw most submissions from emerging artists, as it is open to all painters in the region (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) it also attracts the attention of more established painters from the area—both factors further ensuring that kind of variety.

So it was with this year’s group of jurors and finalists.  The winner of the top prize, with an honorarium of ten thousand dollars, went to Lawrence Cromwell.  A resident of Baltimore, Cromwell is a faculty member in the Design department at Towson University.  His paintings are dense combinations of drawing and painterly gesture, layered thickly to the point that they beg for extended looking.  The artist has said that he is “interested in themes of accumulation, repetition and repression…” using drawing “…as a point of departure and catalyst to create a stream of associated images, words and shapes…” that pile up on his surfaces.[1] This is evident, as are his choices of palette—hot and bright or dark and shadowy—which also add to the sense that there is meaning lurking under all those layers.  The works are striking, and while abstract contain fleeting images that pull the viewer into Cromwell’s love of popular culture, science fiction and the bizarre facts of the evening news.

Lawrence Cromwell, Midnight Vulture, oil on panel, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Painting Awards.  In addition to a plethora of other imagery, this painting includes an image of Mitch McConnell (upper left) and a reference to Melania Trump’s infamous jacket with the saying “I Really Don’t Care” (bottom center).

As with the Trawick Prize awarded last month, apart from the top winner of this competition the most interesting work in the show is that of the winner of the Young Artist Award, Monica Ikegwu.  The twenty-one year old painter and student at the Maryland Institute College of Art is far along on what should be a promising career.  Primarily interested in portraiture, her work is highly realistic, but sympathetic to her subjects in a way that brings out their unique character.  As an African American, born and raised in Baltimore, Ikegwu aims to “expand on the representation of African American people, so that people are aware of who we truly are and that we show who we are in many different forms and styles.”[2]  To this end, Ikegwu stresses that she paints her subjects in their “ordinary clothing” and urges them to pose in their own way.  The results are both perceptive and compelling.  Although Ikegwu has even been compared to Kehinde Wiley because of her focus on portraits of “ordinary” African American subjects, and her highly descriptive rendering of them, her work is distinct as it does not contain Wiley’s fantasy or his art historical references.  Nevertheless, the younger artist does, as Wiley has himself described, go “street casting” in the sense of finding particular individuals from among the community that surrounds her to represent in bold color and closely descriptive renderings. [3]

Monica Ikegwu, And She Saw Blue, oil on canvas, 2019.  Photo courtesy of Bethesda Painting Awards.  This work may be a self-portrait.

Among the painters who did not win awards, Washington DC artist Pat Goslee is represented in this show with three acrylic paintings on circular wooden panels that, according to her statement, reflect her concern with global warming, as well as the biology of the coronavirus and other related themes.  Taking the Latin phrase sub rosa (in secret, or as literally, “under the rose” suggesting the feminine) as a point of departure, Goslee approaches these topics using a technique of tightly integrated abstract forms that weave into one another in layers, tending to cluster towards the center of her compositions.[4]  The result are paintings that although much related formally to her previous work, alter her iconographic focus.

Pat Goslee, Sub Rosa (Purge), acrylic on wood, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Painting Awards. This work might conjure waters imperiled by algae blooms or other environmental hazards.Jowita Wyzsomirska’s large corner installation, Vanishing Point, expresses, as the artist has said, her “grave ecological concerns” about the future of our environment.[5]  Reflecting her experience of the Root Glacier in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, the work attempts to capture the sense of fragility and vulnerability of the landscape there, as well as alluding, albeit abstractly, to the inevitable results of the melting Artic.  The work speaks for itself in this, although when I first saw it through the glass walls of the gallery its black cut out forms made me think of Kiki Smith’s installation representing the huge numbers of crows falling dead from the sky because of pesticides that killed them.[6]  Clearly, both Goslee’s and Wyzsomirska’s emotional connection to and foreboding about nature comes through strongly in these new works.

Jowita Wyzsomirska, Vanishing Point, acrylic, thread, monofilament, felt, mylar, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Painting Awards.

Bethesda Painting Awards Finalists, Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite E, October 9 – 31.  Gallery hours for the duration of the exhibit will be Friday-Saturday, 12 – 4pm. During operational hours, social distancing will be enforced and face masks must be worn by all visitors. For more information, please visit www.bethesda.org or call 301-215-6660.

[1] Artist’s statement to this exhibition.

[2] Artist’s statement to this exhibition.

[3] The term is Wiley’s. https://kehindewiley.com/

[4] The paintings on view at Gallery B are part of Goslee’s sub rosa series, many of which are in small rectangular format.  A number of them can be seen now at the McLean Project for the Arts Virtual Arts Festival, https://mpaartfest.org/artist/pat-goslee/

[5] Artist’s statement to this exhibition.

[6] Cf. Kiki Smith, Jersey Crows, 1995.