East City Art Reviews: The Trawick Contemporary Art Awards 2019

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on September 18, 2019

The sixteenth annual Trawick competition resulted in a show of eight finalists now in Gallery B in downtown Bethesda.  Organized by the Bethesda Arts and Entertainment District and the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the annual event has never had the same jurors serve more than once.  This probably accounts for the very wide differences in the work that reaches the finalist stage each year, and the actual awarding of the prizes; the largest given to artists in local competitions.  Over the years, the Trawick Contemporary Art Awards has received more than 4,350 submissions, and awarded over $220,000 to artists in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC region.

Carol Trawick and Oletha DeVane with her winning installation. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.
Doug Sherman, Sweetgum ball. Credit: pics4learning.com.

This year’s exhibit is especially content heavy, with an emphasis on expressions of identity and environmental reflections. This year’s top winner was Oletha DeVane of Ellicott City, MD.  Her submission is an installation conveying a powerful historical narrative.  The work alludes to the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom at the age of 33 by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate to friends in Philadelphia.  The central element of DeVane’s work is the crate, with a silhouette painted on one side showing the cramped position of Brown’s body in it.  The exterior is labeled “33 years old,” “Dry Goods,” and “Fragile: Handle with Care”.  In fact, Brown had inscribed “Right Side UP” on the box, but when the original was first transported, it was turned upside down, and was only later turned right side up.  A small hole was drilled in the box for air, but Brown somehow survived an incredible 27 days inside the crate without food or water.  Yet, his physical trial resulted in freedom.    DeVane’s box is set in a shallow frame on the floor which is filled with sweetgum balls.  The significance of these expands the reference from a unique focus on Henry Brown to the sufferings endured by many other slaves in their pursuit of freedom.

Many slaves in the American south did not have the luxury of owning shoes.  This meant that traveling on foot they had nothing to protect their feet.  At the beginning of autumn sweetgum balls begin to fall, covering the forest floor.  The brown fruit of the sweetgum tree is covered with sharp spikes.  Abolitionist Harriet Tubman used these sweetgum balls as a way to verify if slaves were ready to endure the trials that escaping would certainly entail.  Tubman would test runaway slaves by having them walk over sweetgum balls with their bare feet.  Those who successfully walked on these extremely painful spikes were deemed ready to continue on the Underground Railroad.   DeVane invited me to slip off my sandals and try to walk inside the frame; something she informed me she has often done in showing this work.  Failing the test, I can say that it certainly underlined the larger meaning of the installation for me.  Seeing the crate set into the spikes, along with the accompanying painting on the wall behind that shows a blending of the Confederate and Union flags, was a profoundly moving experience.

Mojdeh Rezaeipour, On Matters of Resilience: Remember You Are Water, mixed media, 2019. Photo courtesy Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Second place winner Mojdeh Rezaeipour is also concerned with identity issues, and her work is both autobiographical and a commentary on the larger immigrant experience.  Having grown up in Iran, she was born well after the establishment of the Islamic Republic and its imposition of strict rules, especially on the lives of women and girls.  According to the artist, her work aims at connoting the “disembodied nature of the immigrant experience” while also exploring “systems of oppression, hyphenated identity and wholeness”.  Her installation in this exhibition, titled On Matters of Resilience: Remember You are Water, is similar to one she installed in the Open Gallery in the Cafritz Foundation Art Center of Montgomery College in Silver Spring earlier this year.   It is comprised of a variety of domestic objects and small paintings on wood that depict heavily veiled, but faceless Muslim girls in various situations–particularly classroom settings.  There is a strong evocation of memory here, something that the viewer has to put together.  What is striking about the current installation is the predominance of the colors of blue and gold.  While in Islamic culture green and gold are the colors of paradise, blue is considered a protective color, and it can be found as the primary color of many mosques.  More interestingly perhaps, is the fact that blue is the color identified as a guard against the “evil eye” and its use is widespread in protective objects used for this purpose not only among Muslims, but among all the populations surrounding the Mediterranean, including  the Middle East and North Africa.  While red is used for this purpose in Northern and Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean region these objects are always blue, such as a blue bead attached to a child or animal for protection.  This iconographic connection also amplifies the potential resonance of Rezaeipour’s work, and places it in a greater context, despite the surprising fact that the artist doesn’t mention it in her statement.

Renée Rendine, Murmuration, crocheted surgical tubing, plastic construction mesh, zip ties, Mylar, 2019. Photo courtesy Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The third place winner was Renée Rendine, an artist from Towson, MD.  Rendine is essentially a performance artist, but the results of her performance are three dimensional interventions into spaces, as in Gallery B.  Her work, although rather abstractly, addresses the issue of work, and the idea of human beings continuing to construct the same thing over and over again, sometimes to great effect; at others, not so.  Her construction in this exhibit, titled Murmuration, is the result of a long performance that is shown on a video recording.  The artist is immersed in yellow construction mesh which she methodically links, while dressed in an evening gown.  She makes the same movement many times.  She also constructed a sort of funnel made of crocheted surgical tubing and Mylar, which hugs the ceiling right above the yellow mesh as part of the same work.  While this apparently refers to the boring repetition of work, and the evening gown to the people who benefit from this work, in my view it fails to make a point beyond the obvious.

Monroe Isenberg, Event Horizon, wood, aircraft cable, white paint.  Photo courtesy Bethesda Urban Partnership.

A Young Artist award was given to Monroe Isenberg, the only male artist to win a prize this year.  Isenberg’s sculpture is striking and technically impressive.  The two pieces by this recent winner of the Tom Rooney Prize from the Washington Sculpture Group are both examples of his aim to use natural materials in minimal but expressive forms to create works that, in his words “ invoke contemplative participation and questioning.”  One piece hangs from the ceiling from a steel cable.  Titled Event Horizon, the work is comprised of two curved wooden elements that meet only slightly in the middle.  Painted white, they almost disappear in the brightly lit gallery.  Nevertheless, they make a silent statement about light and space in a way that is hard to articulate—the very definition of minimal sculpture taken from Wittgenstein’s discussion of things that cannot be said, but can be shown.  His other work is almost its opposite.  A very large wooden carving made from reclaimed pieces of pine and oak, shaped into a kind of cornucopia of sorts, but its narrow end suspended against the wall by a heavy aircraft cable. With its warm wood color and its large size, the work is compelling from various angles, feeling like a burst of energy in the center of the gallery space.

Monroe Isenberg, Mach XXIII, reclaimed pine and oak, aircraft cable.  Photo courtesy Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The photographic and video works of Muriel Hasbun certainly merit attention, although they strangely did not win her a prize.   As I indicated earlier, the themes of identity and memory are prominent in this exhibit, and Hasbun’s work is effectively the strongest expression of them here.  I have been familiar with her work for many years, having known it in the 1990s when I was working as an arts critic in El Salvador, although she had already emigrated to Washington DC before my arrival there.  I have seen the evolution of her practice since then, and her recent projects shown here, as she writes in her artist’s statement, “embody [her] investigation of identity, cultural memory and migration.”   Her work has consistently represented “a dialogue between the past and the present, between personal memory and collective history,” and these are no exception.  Of the various works represented here, the long video titled Scheherazade or (Per)forming the Archive has the greatest impact.  It is a self-portrait of sorts, including remembrances of her deceased father and mother and structured on the basis of Rimsky Korsakov’s symphonic suite of that name.  It will be recalled that Scheherazade survived by telling stories, and that is what Hasbun has tried to do with her remarkable photographic projects.

Super 8mm film, 2014.09.20, from the archive, Washington, DC, archival pigment print, 2016

The Trawick Prize, Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave #E, Bethesda, MD 20814, is on view through Saturday, September 28.  The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday 12 – 6 PM.  For more information call (301) 215-7990 or visit www.bethesda.org

Banner Image:  Oletha DeVane, Henry “Box” Brown.  Photo courtesy Bethesda Urban Partnership.