Tucked away between the University of Maryland campus and the College Park Metro station is the American Center for Physics. In this clean-lined building, curator Sarah Tanguy puts together an ongoing exhibition, displaying artworks throughout the first-floor hallways, conference rooms and atrium. The exhibits are always loosely related to the purpose of the building -- science, physics, space and the universe, all subjects that have been explored.
In the current show, "Expanding Realities," Tanguy brings together five artists who she says are exploring "the notion of outward expansion in relation to our perception of reality." The artists -- Patrick M. Craig, Catriona Fraser, Sandi Ritchie Miller, Marie Ringwald and Lynn Schmidt -- share traits that may not be immediately apparent. Yet with careful thought and consideration, the qualities that link these artists and the reason that the curator decided to exhibit their work together begins to emerge.
The three artists working in two dimensions, painters Craig and Ritchie Miller and photographer Fraser, each are investigating and interpreting space in direct and distinctly personal ways.
Ritchie Miller uses enamel paint on Plexiglas to create windows onto infinite space. By painting on more than one layer of Plexiglas, she builds depth, enabling the viewer to move beyond the confines of the picture plane to what looks and feels like a depiction of the cosmos.
In "Starshine," for instance, swirls of amorphous color, like an intergalactic explosion, occupy the top layer. Yet when you look into the spaces between the colors, you can see further to another layer of star-speckled black space that seems to go on indefinitely. It's an effective technique that works best when seen close up, as the paintings tend to flatten into uninteresting abstractions when seen from a distance. You have to look into them, not at them, to experience the expansion of space.
Craig makes large acrylic paintings that play with space and the viewer's perceptions by deftly shifting and re-shifting vantage points. His abstract shapes exist in an atmosphere that is at once expanding and contracting. Are we looking into a microscope or out into the beyond? It depends on where your eye rests. Is that podlike shape close enough to touch or light years away? It's hard to decide.
It's a confusing world he paints, but not an unpleasant one. The shapes and patterns are familiar and referential, even joyful. Craig's expanded reality is ripe for fearless exploration.
By taking infrared photographs of the mythic and mystic castles, standing stones and graveyards of her native Scotland, Fraser is expanding reality in a completely different way. Speaking more about place than space, she photographs sites steeped in mystery. Fraser's use of the infrared technique, which both darkens and lightens the natural tones of these black-and-white pictures, amplifies their otherworldly essence. These ancient markers of civilization, which speak so eloquently of the past, become ethereal and slightly fantastic in Fraser's hands.
The two sculptors in the show, Ringwald and Schmidt, both create quirky pieces that address the issue of what is real and what becomes real because of our perceptions.
Ringwald has contributed to the exhibit a series of miniature structures that bring to mind the sheds, barns and modest houses of the rural landscape. Each piece is small, about 4-by-4 inches, made from polychrome wood and galvanized sheet metal. The forms are simplified, but they are also imbued with a dash of nostalgic sentimentality that might seem at odds with their stark execution.
These pieces are strangely evocative: You can almost see the fallow winter fields that would surround a building such as "Sampler Shed #13," the dried cornstalks covered with frost in the barren, treeless landscape. Ringwald has managed to create small geometric shapes that evoke a tangible sense of place, expanding reality straight from the object to the memories that live in the heart and the mind's eye.
Schmidt takes utilitarian objects and changes them by combining them with other objects to build sculptures full of mysterious and undefined purpose. She toys with and expands on reality by changing the function of familiar objects. This effectively creates a puzzling new reality. The sculpture "What?" has a slotted spoon attached to a spent firecracker, creating something that looks as if it came right from a 1950s radio studio. There is nothing slick or fancy at work here, just the age-old trick of imaginative transformation. Expanding realities indeed.
In the end, the show hangs together because of the strength of each artist's unique vision. We go where they lead us, beyond the picture plane and into a reality shaped by the timeless forces of imagination and invention.
"Expanding Realities: Works by Patrick M. Craig, Catriona Fraser, Sandi Ritchie Miller, Marie Ringwald and Lynn Schmidt" is at the American Center for Physics through Oct. 22. One Physics Ellipse, College Park. 301-209-3125.