2010 Bethesda Painting Awards celebrate the great outdoors, and more

Katherine Mann's
Katherine Mann's "Filigree Pt. 2" installation won second prize in the Bethesda Painting Awards. Patches of color suggest natural elements such as trees, the sky, clouds and Earth. Works by the award finalists are on view at Fraser Gallery. (From Katherine Mann)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

Landscapes predominate in the 2010 Bethesda Painting Awards at Fraser Gallery. Most of them celebrate, in one form or another, the great outdoors.

Or do they?

Certainly the work of Deborah Ellis (who took home the contest's third-place prize of $1,000) seems to be about nature. Her three watercolors on view feature, respectively, tree branches silhouetted against the setting sun; mist-shrouded woods; and a fringe of grasses at the margin of a pond. They're lovely pictures. But, as the artist suggests in her statement, she's less interested in recording appearances than atmospherics. Her focus, she writes, is on the edge, "where dark and light touch, land and water merge or are tangent, the meeting of branch with sky and water where light can both dissolve and intensify form."

Ellis's pictures, as it turns out, aren't about places at all, but liminal, or threshold states. They're neither here nor there but somewhere in between.

Katherine Mann (whose second-place finish earned her $2,000) is less obviously a landscapist. Part of a 30-foot installation that's too big for the gallery, the artist's monumental paper work "Filigree Pt. 2" at first glance looks like pure abstraction: kaleidoscopic patches of blue, white, orange and green swirl in a storm of color, with holes cut out of the paper here and there. But look more closely. You'll make out blowing leaves, vegetation and the silhouette of a bare tree. The blue suggests water; the white, clouds; the orange, the glow of the sun; and the green, Earth. The piece references landscape without being one.

But it's the work of Nora Sturges ($10,000 Best in Show winner) that's hardest to pigeonhole -- and the most haunting.

Five of her paintings depict arctic tableaux: blue-gray vistas of cracked ice, with strange hardware dotting the landscape. One features what looks like a research observation platform; in another, decoy seals bob in the water, near some sort of robotic camera. (You can tell they're decoys, and not real animals, by the hole in the back of one's head.) The imagery comes not from life but from pictures found on the Internet or in National Geographic magazine.

The rest of the artist's paintings depict scenes from an imaginary travelogue. Yes, they're all landscapes, but of unreal places.

And it's no accident that Sturges's paintings are all tiny. They range from three inches tall -- and not much wider -- to roughly nine by 12 inches. Many of the details are painted with a No. 1 watercolor brush (the smallest size commercially made, and one whose needlelike point makes possible the finest detail).

"For many years now," Sturges explained in an interview, "I've noticed that my pictures have been not just small, but head size." When you look at them, the artist says, she doesn't want you to enter the landscape of the picture, but to go inside your own head. "I want people to relate to it," she says, "with their mind's eye."

The work of six other finalists is also on view. The juried competition, begun in 2005, is funded by Bethesda businesswoman Carol Trawick.

BETHESDA PAINTING AWARDS Through June 26 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. http://www.thefrasergallery.com. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. Program: On Friday from 6 to 9 p.m., the gallery will host a free public reception.

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