Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards Bring Artists Down to Earth

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

"The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards" is a dirty show this year. That tongue-in-cheek observation, by Catriona Fraser, whose gallery is hosting the seventh annual showcase, has less to do with the fact that grand prize winner René Treviño's contribution features a bit of male frontal nudity than it does with all the, well, soil in the gallery.

Most of it belongs to Jessie Lehson's "Dirt Floor XVIII." The installation of soil and mica, sifted onto the floor in a geometric palette of pink, fawn and terra cotta, is halfway between a painting and a carpet, and might easily remind a gallery-goer of artist Margaret Boozer's "Dirt Drawings," recently seen at the American University Museum. Lehson's work, about the size of an area rug, is pretty. Pretty enough to garner the Baltimore artist the third-place prize of $1,000.

But there's more going on here than temporary, site-specific decor. (All the dirt will be swept up and carted away at the close of the exhibition.) Rather than identifying the different soil samples, which come from all over the world, by location, Lehson names them after people: Jon, Vivienne, Dad, Heidi, Meg, Justin and Angela. That lends the work a somber air it wouldn't otherwise possess, calling to mind the Catholic liturgical saying, "Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."

The earthen theme continues courtesy of Leslie Shellow, who has dropped dirt and melted wax on the floor and painted directly on the wall.

A real standout among the eight finalists is Molly Springfield, who took home second prize (and $2,000) for her exploration of text and the nature of originality. Her "Miscellanea Photogenica/Melancholy Results" is also site-specific, centering on a large landscape drawn on the wall in pencil. It'll eventually be washed off, or painted over. More dirt; get it?

The Washington artist's work also boasts a conceptual component. Springfield isn't just a masterful draftsman. Taped around the landscape is a series of photocopies and drawings. Drawings of what? In one case, it's a hand-drawn copy of a photocopy of a page from a book about copying. On the page appears the caption "Fac-simile of an old printed page." Confusing? Hell, yes, but also fascinating if you're willing to go down that rabbit hole.

The work by Treviño, who won the $10,000 first prize, is more disappointing. An entire corner of the gallery is devoted to the Baltimore artist's "Propaganda Series," small acrylic-on-Mylar panels that probe his status as a gay Mexican American. In the window hangs one of his "Gay Mexican Flags," which translates the Mexican tricolor into alternating bars of pure pink and pink-and-white fabric. Yes, there's a conceptual subtext here, too. But the work feels like little more than decent graphic design. The real problem you might have with it, though, is that its subject -- the theme of identity, especially gay identity -- feels so . . . 1993. That's the year the Whitney Biennial hammered away at race- and gender-based identity art.

Are we really still having this conversation?

The $1,000 young-artist award went to Hannah Kim of Falls Church. Her painting is worth checking out for its optically disorienting technique alone. In "Mumbai Doubled," a pattern of black ink seems to hover, like a tattoo on a translucent skin, in front of a foggy streetscape. It's accompanied by a somewhat pointless DVD animation in which two silhouetted figures emerge from a mist.

The Richmond-based Ruth Bolduan's paintings of 18th-century women are underwhelming, but Baltimore's Greg Minah is truly talented. His two paintings on view -- in which the artist "draws" by tilting the canvas while still-wet paint trickles this way and that -- infuse the legacy of the Washington Color School with a vigorous, Jackson Pollock-y energy.

The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards Through Oct. 3 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda) Contact: 301-718-9651. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. Program: An opening reception is Friday from 6 to 9 p.m.

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