Aspiring artist Jerome Tupa joined the Benedictine order back in 1963, soon after quitting college. A pragmatic monk cautioned him to lay off the pigment and do a PhD instead, so Tupa flew to Paris for French studies at the Sorbonne. But even as he plunged into academia, Tupa spent hours rendezvousing with Matisses, Miros and Picassos at city museums. Soon he picked up painting again.
In Paris, Tupa depicted the staples of his student life -- books and chairs and desks. Since then, he's dabbled in abstraction but has returned, emphatically, to his signature surreal realism. His latest works, on view in "The Road to Rome: A Modern Pilgrimage," at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, depict the churches, monasteries and piazzas he sketched during a 21-city journey in 1999, following a route popular since the 4th century. But Tupa's depictions of those holy buildings weren't exactly faithful -- to reality, at least.
Walls that are straight in real life curve on Tupa's canvases. Campaniles curl at near-90-degree angles. Colonnades bend like reeds in the breeze. Tupa, it seems, sees the world through a fisheye lens.
He also indulges in fanciful urban planning. Tupa figured his painting of Cortona could use a bell tower. So he inserted one. The piazza in Udine, he thought, might look nice with a fountain. He added one. And because he was so charmed by both the arcaded facade and massive rear apse of Lucca's cathedral, Tupa pretended that centuries-old structure was made out of Silly Putty and bent the building into a U so he could paint both ends in a single view.
The sketches and watercolors Tupa made on the road aren't quite this whimsical. Their decidedly sedate colors and compositions are closer to scenes as he saw them. Only upon returning to his Collegeville, Minn., studio (Tupa teaches at St. John's University there) did he transform the sacred sites into dizzying canvases rendered in bright, bright colors (orange, blue, green, red and gold -- often used at the same time) that form the bulk of this show.
Tupa's fantasyland vistas convey both exuberance and reverence, but they aren't for everyone. His credo -- "There is nothing so dull and boring as a straight line" -- will send devotees of 20th-century art reeling. But he remains true to his vision.
Maria Elena Gonzalez at UMBC Stop into the exhibition of New York artist Maria Elena Gonzalez's recent work at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and you might wonder where the art is. There are some low stools made of ceramic tile; there's a black rubber mound that looks something like a beehive; there's a big wooden bowl, 15 feet across, with a string of baseballs climbing up to the ceiling; there's a square of blacktop in a corner.
This stuff looks familiar. Or does it? Gonzalez, who has shown at the well-regarded Harlem gallery the Project, is heir to '60s-era minimalism. Like granddaddies Donald Judd, Robert Ryman and John McCracken, her sculptural works are spare to the point of nonexistence. The half-moon-shape stools of "Untitled (confessional)" are pared-down white crescents. The three-tiered sculpture "Black Cake" is a pure black rubber-covered mound.
But Gonzalez has tweaked the minimalist formula. Whereas Judd and company were bent on creating impersonal objects that left no trace of the human hand, Gonzalez revels in the personal and the domestic. Her "Untitled (confessional)" stools are covered in ceramic tiles you'd find in a shower stall. The rubber coating of "Black Cake" connotes a pile of tires or a bathtub stopper. And these objects, unlike most vintage minimalist objects, invite people to interact with them (go ahead, sit on the stools).
Gonzalez's strength is her ability to defamiliarize the familiar. Her "C-Carpet," a four-foot-square panel of blacktop, the kind you'd find on a neighborhood basketball court, is far too small to accommodate a game of pickup. But its white lines are the same as the ones that mark edges of a court. What is this object, then? In fact, the piece has the dimensions not of a ball court but a coat closet -- a twist on the familiar that mystifies and intrigues. Walking through Gonzalez's show engenders plenty of head-scratching just to get a handle on the artist's vision. It's definitely worth the effort.
Jeffrey Prehn at Alla Rogers Most artists looking to meet dealers are lucky to get a few minutes of their time -- let alone two hours.
But that's exactly what Arlington photographer Jeffrey Prehn got. He'd never had so much as a solo exhibit before, yet he finagled audiences with 25 area commercial, nonprofit and home art gallery owners and directors by asking to take their pictures. The black-and-white portraits are collected in "Faces (+ their spaces)," on view at Alla Rogers's eponymous gallery (Prehn's portrait of his host is stationed opposite the entrance). While his project's premise has been, I suspect, self-serving, Prehn's results are solid.
Prehn has operated a portrait studio since the early 1990s, and his commercial roots are showing: These pictures are well lit, slick and professional. The photographer has cast shadows behind several of his subjects to inch up the drama, and he's coaxed expressions ranging from the pained to the self-satisfied, with a few smiles thrown in. I particularly enjoyed his picture of Jane Haslem positioned below a fish sculpture hanging, like bizarre mistletoe, from a door frame in her genteel row house gallery.
The Road to Rome: A Modern Pilgrimage, at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, 3900 Harewood Rd. NE, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., 202-635-5400, to May 7.
Maria Elena Gonzalez at the Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Cir., Baltimore, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 410-455-3188, to Oct. 26.
Jeffrey Prehn at Alla Rogers Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-333-8595, to Nov. 13.