East City Art Reviews—The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards 16

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on September 13, 2018

Over the sixteen years that the Trawick Foundation has been awarding prizes for contemporary art in the region, the exhibitions of sample works by the finalists has varied tremendously.  This reflects the fact that the jury has changed with every competition, often dramatically, even while members of both the academic and museum communities continue to dominate their selection.   Jury selection has also been diverse, and generally unpredictable, when it came to their choice of winners.  However, a theme or a certain kind of artist has often been notable in these shows.  In this year’s group of finalists, there is a sense that the jurors gravitated toward the conceptually subtle, the formally elegant and the well-crafted.

Caroline Hatfield, Shifting Sites, coal slag, charcoal, found objects. 2018. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The winner of the top prize, ten thousand dollars, was Caroline Hatfield.  The Baltimore based artist works with materials that can evoke landscape and environmental decay.  Growing up in a Southern Appalachian community, she was impacted by the region’s “juxtaposition of protected wilderness and mined land as a major influence” in her work.[1]   Once this is understood, the work becomes more intriguing.  Hatfield’s installations are like three-dimensional landscape works, small and contained enough to be in the gallery space, but with reference to the actual landscape.  While this is not a first–land artists in the 1970s started out with gallery sized works–Hatfield brings a 21st century feeling to the work.  As for so many other contemporary artists, the degradation of the environment has become a significant theme and a vehicle for Hatfield’s (and hopefully our) anger, but also love of the land.   With her background, she is particularly sensitive to the dichotomy of the sublime in nature—which thankfully is still out there—but also its undoing for the sake of short term gains.  Her Shifting Sites, now occupying the center of Gallery B, consists of piles of coal slag and charcoal with pieces of rusted out steel tanks inserted into them.   The message is immediate.  But I will allow the fact that the care with which this is done, and the concepts behind it, are both impressive.  Not enough to bring one to tears, but certainly to provoke thinking about the issues the installation raises.

Caroline Hatfield, Shifting Sites, coal slag, charcoal, found objects. 2018. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The extraordinary drawings of Timothy Makepeace, third-place winner, evoke a similarly subtle idea, but with far more visual impact.   Reminiscent of the paintings of Lillian Bayley Hoover, winner of the 2015 competition, Makepeace looks at the unremarkable in our industrial society, and makes it remarkable.  His subjects are industrial and architectural, and his  drawings are sensitive with a beautiful hand, conveying a sense of time as well as place.

Timothy Makepeace, Up Down Yellow Circle, charcoal and pastel on paper. 2017. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Makepeace is one of a group of artists who, in 2017, were selected by NASA to create artwork inspired by the construction of the new James Webb Space Telescope.  When it is launched next year, it will replace the Hubble Space Telescope that has done such amazing photography of the worlds beyond us.  One of the drawings in the exhibit, Cryo Testing Structure, in charcoal and pastel on paper of this year, is demonstrative of his ability to take a very close view of a small part of a large construction and turn it into an interesting contrast of dark and light, and delicately rendered forms.   His Up Down Yellow Circle is testament to these same intentions, but given the detail of the rendering, one has to remember that this is a drawing, and look for the hand in it.  It’s very much there.

Nicole Salimbene, second place winner, is represented by three works of different kinds in this show.  The most ambitious is a large 2016 collaborative installation called Mending Table that sits in front of the gallery window.  A low wooden coffee table has what appears to be hundreds of large needles hammered into its center.  Its creation involved a kind of meditative workshop where participants threaded the needles with black thread that, in the final work, is allowed to bunch together on the floor nearby resembling a fall of heavy hair.  The meditative aspect of the work is accented by two round white cushions at each end.  The artist’s website has photos of her and others sitting opposite the long sides of the table in meditation.  The idea of mending suggested by the needles and thread is not merely a feminist reference.  It references a Jewish tradition tikkun olam: mending creation through good works.[2]  The installation also includes earth from the Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine in New Mexico whose soil is said to have healing powers.  The mending goes beyond simple stitching.  It is a metaphor for restorative atonement, for a mending of the world and of the inner self at the same time.

Nicole Salimbene, Mending Table (detail), needles, thread, reclaimed wooden table, meditation cushions. 2016. Photo press release, Flashpoint Gallery.

Meditative processes are also integral to the art practice of Mary Early, among the finalists, although unfortunately, not among the winners.  Early is represented by a recent (2018) addition to a series of works that she began last year called Linea or lines.  Many of her previous installations using cast beeswax forms tended to be spread on the floor to create, as she has said, “an array or a field.”  We might remember the impressive work she installed in fall 2017 in the American University Art Museum titled Curve made of hundreds of small tube-like lines of yellow wax placed in the curved gallery space that tracks the curved architecture of the building.  The Linea series are vertical linear works suspended in the air.  Linea VI in the Trawick exhibit hangs elegantly from the ceiling, each wax tube tied to the next with linen thread giving the impression of an openwork curtain.  The rows of lines form a rectangle activating the space of the gallery.  Accompanying the installation is a group of four small (c. 16 x 12 inches) studies for the Linea series made with graphite, sennelier oil stick and sumi ink on watercolor paper.  These exquisite drawings bring us back to the theme of elegance and craft in this show.  The grayish ink flows like clouds behind the yellow lines that cross over it.

Mary Early, Untitled, Study for Linea (no. 3585), graphite, sennelier oil stick, sumi ink on watercolor paper. 2017. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

Finally, I’d like to mention the photographs of finalist Jay Gould.  The artist is fascinated by science fiction, especially the idea of parallel universes, and unexplained phenomena in the world.  The images in this show are part of a series called Uncertain Passages that “explores and meditates on the unobservable reality of matter and the relative sensation of time that underpins our existence.”[3]  While this may be somewhat inscrutable, the photographs are strongly composed and beautifully manipulated to create a surreal world that might just be found in the “multiverse” of contemporary physics.  Mirrors Are Leaks (2013) shows a reflection of a figure in a pond—without the figure itself.  The title refers to a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions who calls mirrors leaks, holes between two universes.  Another photo, Aggregate (2017), shows a leaf against a blue sky over a landscape that made me think of René Magritte’s surreal scenes.  Gould’s work hovers between the simply imaginary and the surreal.  His statement ends with a quotation attributed to  Albert Einstein to the effect that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”   Yet, it is when knowledge and skill are applied to what is imagined that truly great things are made.

Jay Gould, Mirrors Are Leaks, pigment print. 2013. Photo courtesy of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.

The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, Gallery B,  September 5- 29, 2018.   7700 Wisconsin Ave #E, Bethesda, MD 20814.  Gallery Hours: 12-6 Wednesday through Saturday.  For more information, visit www.bethesda.org.

[1] Artist’s statement.

[2] Cf. Mark Jenkins, In the Galleries: Review of Mending at Flashpoint, Washington Post, Oct. 1, 2016.

[3]  From the artist’s statement.