Paint: The Message Vs. the Medium

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

Paint, for some artists, is the means to an end. For others, it's the end itself.

B.G. Muhn is the first kind of painter. Three of his works, from a series of striking acrylic-on-canvas portraits of an androgynous bald figure, are on view at Fraser Gallery in the annual showcase of finalists in the Bethesda Painting Awards. Now in its fourth year, the increasingly prestigious regional painting contest hands out as much as $14,000 in cash prizes every year. As announced earlier this month, Muhn took home the Best in Show award and a $10,000 check.

I won't argue the merits of that decision by the judges (Maryland painter Timothy App, National Portrait Gallery curator Anne Collins Goodyear and Virginia Commonwealth University painting professor Reni Gower). Within the parameters of what Muhn does, he's a virtuoso. His handling of paint, particularly skin tones, is impeccable. But for him, meaning comes from the picture, not the paint. The medium isn't the message, if you will, but the sheet (or the canvas) on which it's written.

Then there's Suzanna Fields.

Like Muhn, she has three works in the show, all acrylic on canvas. But her art, which garnered the artist third place and $1,000, comes from a very different place. For Fields, a painting isn't so much a picture as it is a thing to play with, like clay.

Take "Orange Crush."

As with her previous work, it's more sculptural than it is painterly, consisting not of marks made on a flat surface, but of a thick clump of bristling orange fibers ending in contrasting dabs of blue. If it looks like anything, it might be a toy left over from some old "Finding Nemo" promotion: a candy-colored rubber sea anemone. Although technically attached to a canvas (and good luck finding it beneath all that paint), it makes no pretense to illusionistic (or even abstract) storytelling. It's an object, pure and simple, and it's pop-flavored message is this: "Don'tcha just love paint?"

The answer, almost unavoidably, is yes.

Fields's sirenlike painting hangs smack dab across from one of the gallery's picture windows and seems sure to draw in passersby; they'll find similarly lush works in the artist's "Tadpie" and "Knockoff."

Muhn and Fields represent two extremes. Most of the show, however, falls somewhere in between.

Case in point: Tom Green, who won second place, and $2,000.

Like Muhn, he makes pictures. But his "Pond," an evocation of microscopic aquatic life in splashes of expressionistic acrylic, sits halfway between representation and abstraction. It's a picture of a pond, yes, but it's also just a pile of paint. (Green is a little too in love with the way liquid pigment behaves when thrown off the end of a brush to be considered anything but a true soul mate of Fields.)

Take a good, long look it. Are we meant to take those squishes and plops of pigment as pictures of protozoa . . . or nothing more than paint?

Bethesda Painting Awards Through July 5 at the Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda) Contact:301-718-9651. http://www.thefrasergallery.com. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. Program: Today from 6 to 9 p.m., a public opening will be held with the Bethesda Art Walk. For more information, visit http://www.bethesda.org/arts/artswalk.htm. Bethesda Painting Awards Through July 5 at the Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda) Contact:301-718-9651. http://www.thefrasergallery.com. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. Program: Today from 6 to 9 p.m., a public opening will be held with the Bethesda Art Walk. For more information, visit http://www.bethesda.org/arts/artswalk.htm.


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