Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards Show features unaffected beauty

Sara Pomerance, of Washington, won the $10,000 "Best in Show" award for videos like this about middle-class life.
By Blake Gopnik
Thursday, September 2, 2010

There's not much Bethesda in the Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, a.k.a. the Trawick Prize. Entries -- about 300 were submitted this year -- can come from the District, Virginia or Maryland. The 2010 awards, announced Wednesday night, were given to artists from Washington, Baltimore and Reisterstown. Most important, the art created by some of this year's winners, though on display in an empty storefront off Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, could have come from almost any of the world's major centers of contemporary art.

Sara Pomerance of Washington won the $10,000 "Best in Show" award (a rather doggie-sounding title for an art prize, but never mind) with some very peculiar videos of middle-class life. This is the first time that a projected video has won the top Trawick prize.

Dan Steinhilber, by far the best-known artist in the show -- the kind of artist you don't imagine applying for local prizes -- won second place, and $2,000, for classic works of his. Steinhilber, another Washingtonian, is showing two "paintings" that are nothing more than wrinkled sheets of tan plastic film, adhered to the wall through static electricity. They join a sculpture made from a galvanized trash can with a fan at its bottom that keeps a black cloud of garbage bags inflated above.

Baltimorean Bernhard Hildebrandt came in third. He won $1,000 for two big color photos shot canalside in Venice, but looking down into the troubled waters so that the view is seen only as a very distorted reflection.

A $1,000 "young artist" prize went to Milana Braslavsky of Reisterstown, for color photos showing people striking strange poses with strange clothes -- a young woman, for instance, has white jeans on her legs . . . and another pair pulled on over her arms and head.

The prize was established in 2003 by Carol Trawick, an information-technology millionaire who has been active in cultural philanthropy in Bethesda and beyond.

The winners were selected from 11 finalists, all also in the awards show, by a jury made up of Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery; Robert Haywood, outgoing deputy director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore; and Emily Smith, a curatorial fellow in contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

I'd say the judges got the order of the prizes about right.

Pomerance's projected videos are as peculiar and intriguing as any recent art I've seen. Aesthetically, they don't try to impress. They look like the kind of flat-footed videos you'd find in any family's memento drawer. One shows dinner in a banal bourgeois house. Another presents a woman in a flannel nightgown talking on the phone in bed. A third is of a middle-aged man asking his daughters' advice on some neckties; the same man is then shown trying to park in his driveway. Not much happens in any of these scenes. At the dinner, a family member gets compliments on how she wears her hair. The woman in bed fiddles nervously as she has unremarkable conversations with a series of friends. The daughters give the man modest praise for his ties. Parking, Dad obsesses about the position of his car.

Instead of wanting to look fancy and striking, these videos work hard to capture the ordinary feel of ordinary life in our times. This puts them in the grand tradition of Vermeer, Chardin and even C├ęzanne. And like all three of those artists, Pomerance somehow injects a tiny note of the uncanny into her everyday scenes,, as though even the most settled middle-class life has tensions running through it. I admit I don't fully get Pomerance's work. That makes me like it.

Steinhilber's art is well known in this town, and lately even beyond it. For a decade now, he's been reworking goods from Home Depot into compelling works of art. His two tan "paintings" are him at his best. Their materials are as modest as ever: A wall label lists "plastic sheeting, static electricity" as the artist's medium. But there's something almost magical in how his objects take the place of paintings on the gallery wall. In these pieces, Steinhilber achieves maximum charge with minimum means, and that's what they're about.

Hildebrandt's two Venice photos in some sense take an opposite tack from the pared-down works of Pomerance and Steinhilber. They are full -- almost too full -- of flashy effect. When you first see them, you think Hildebrandt has gone Photoshop crazy: His absurdly wavy images look as though they've suffered a cheap digital reprise of your standard fun-house mirror. But when you look closer, specks of dirt on the water's surface reveal it as the source of the distortion. The Photoshop reference doesn't disappear once you notice the heaving canal. Instead, there's extra pleasure to be had in finding nature imitating art.

Finally, there's enough promise in Braslavsky's work to predict her getting wider recognition very soon. She was the most notable discovery on a recent trawl through Baltimore's art scene, where she was in two shows at once. Braslavsky's peculiar photos achieve a winning mix of staged surrealism and the world observed.

Trawick Prize Show

Works by winners and finalists for the Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards are on view through Sept. 25 at 4728 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, open Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Call 301-215-6660 or visit

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