Richmond artist Fiona Ross was shut out of the winners' circle at the Bethesda Painting Awards at Fraser Gallery. Her arresting ink drawings include
Richmond artist Fiona Ross was shut out of the winners' circle at the Bethesda Painting Awards at Fraser Gallery. Her arresting ink drawings include "Apotropaia #2."
Fiona Ross

In Painting Awards, Unexpected Outcomes

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Earlier this month, the three cash-prize winners of the 2007 Bethesda Painting Awards, a juried art competition established in 2005 by businesswoman and arts patron Carol Trawick, were announced at the Fraser Gallery, where their work is on display alongside that of four runners-up. A couple of surprises are in store.

As determined by jurors Brandon Fortune, associate curator of painting and drawing at the National Portrait Gallery, and artists W.C. Richardson and Tanja Softic, the top honor went to Matthew Klos, a not widely known representational painter who took home the $10,000 best-in-show award. The $2,000 second prize went to Cara Ober, with Maggie Michael, a "hot" (i.e., avidly collected) abstractionist with work already in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, coming in a somewhat startling third ($1,000).

Ober and Michael are, in a way, kindred spirits, each using a hodgepodge of mark-making to evoke worlds. The more purely expressionistic of the two, Michael evokes a pretty solid physical universe, if only one made of paint, while Ober's fragmentary collages of random thoughts -- the phrase "maybe you need your pain to accomplish what you do" floats by in "Evangelist" -- suggest states of consciousness more than place.

Michael's third-place finish, along with the awarding of the first prize to Klos (a merely serviceable academic painter of quasi-photo-realist utility sinks and the like) were not the only shockers, by my accounting. That the most arresting and original work in the show -- three sumi-ink drawings on Japanese paper by Richmond artist Fiona Ross -- went un-honored seems an egregious oversight. According to gallery director Catriona Fraser, who serves as the non-voting chairwoman of the awards, that Ross's works are on paper rather than traditional canvas, linen or wood panel (along with her use of ink instead of acrylic or oils) caused the jury to question whether they were, properly speaking, paintings.

I understand that logic, but it seems a shame that Ross's work would be subjected to a hurdle they didn't face to begin with, given that they made it to the finalist stage without penalty flags thrown at their pedigree. To be sure, they look more like drawings than paintings, but having made it to the last round, Ross's pictures deserved to be judged on their merits, not their media.

As a consolation of sorts, Fraser plans to include Ross's work in group show tentatively titled "Committed" in honor of the obsessive-compulsiveness of its meticulous facture. Consisting of hundreds of tiny circles, the artist's black-and-white images can resemble the lining of a uterine wall ("Apotropaia #2") or the cosmos ("Float").

It is also a pleasure to see work included by finalists Phyllis Plattner and Heidi Folwer. Plattner draws upon the visual idioms of two unrelated cultures: Chiapas, Mexico, in the gun-toting dolls fashioned after Zapatista rebels that serve as models for the painter's strange tableaux, and Tuscany, Italy, in the Renaissance-style, gold-leaf-on-panel "altarpiece" that serves as their backdrop. It's work that comments not just on the tradition of painting but on history and storytelling itself.

Fowler's landscapes also exist at the intersection of two worlds: the natural and the man-made. Yet these pictures of the modern word crackle with an unseen energy. Could it be the electricity coursing through the high-tension wires of "No. 051.82.006"? Could it be, as the artist writes, some aspect of the divine? Or could it be the estrangement with which she seems to regard the ordinary?

I was most puzzled, finally, by the inclusion of David Krueger. Like Klos, the artist has an MFA from the University of Maryland (where, coincidentally, juror Richardson teaches), but unlike his fellow alum, Krueger is a surrealist, not a realist. His one painting here, "Alice in Icon Park," features a densely antlered jackalope, a trailer and a naked woman.

His theory of art? That "a good painting has to be interesting for a long time." How disappointing, then, if not entirely unexpected -- especially for something that seems to be trying so hard to get people to look at it -- that the painting is one colossal bore.

BETHESDA PAINTING AWARDS Through July 7. Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11:30 to 6. Free.

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