For more than a decade, the Trawick Prize, or the Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, has marked the end of the summer. Every year since its founding by Carol Trawick in 2003, the awards ceremony has taken place in what is now called Gallery B–formerly Fraser Gallery, followed by an exhibit of works by a selected number of finalists. This year is no exception, and the exhibit is both diverse in approach and thematically provocative.
Lauren F. Adams, the first-place winner, is on the painting faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The multimedia artist is interested in the ways that all manner of decorative art objects and ornament not only express sociocultural and political ideologies, but also hold keys to understanding those ideologies in a historical context. Her research into domestic materials such as printed textiles and wall coverings, as well as in the decorative elements used in architecture, have revealed the latent meaning in significant patterns and details that often go unnoticed.
Adams said she is fascinated by what she calls “the history of pattern language,” the way patterns “move through history” and become carriers of meaning beyond their simple appearance. She cited chintz as an example; with origins in India, this domestic textile pattern was transferred to Europe and especially to England where it was restyled to please European taste. When imported and eagerly adopted in the U.S., its widespread use reflected American aspirations to reflect English good taste and class consciousness. In this way, a simple pattern of flowers takes on an unexpected social, historical and political identity.
In this exhibit, Adams is represented by “Today’s Cake,” a signature, but temporary, work. The artist covered a wall in the corner of the gallery with a silkscreened vintage wallpaper that features a repeating Rococo pattern of a shepherdess with a child, and floral motifs. The paper is colored in soft blue tones; it is only after the viewer stands in contemplation of this that the artist’s painted additions to the wallpaper become apparent. Little “signs” express an array of angry protests addressing contemporary issues like racism, feminism, poverty and other evils that plague society. A small footstool covered with a similar print in black is placed before it.
One might see this as just another protest work, but the title is the key to the work’s deeper meaning and its historical context. Adams said this Rococo pattern goes back to the Réveillon Riot, the first violent uprising preceding the French Revolution of 1789. Jean-Baptiste Réveillon had humble beginnings, but marrying well, he was able to establish a wallpaper factory that earned him a fortune. Queen Marie-Antoinette used the papiers bleu d’Angleterre (English blue papers) to decorate her apartments, and in 1783, Réveillon was granted permission to use the title of Manufacture Royale. Thus, these domestic wall coverings were closely identified with the monarchy increasingly blamed for the high prices of food in Paris, and the heavy burden of taxation the régime imposed to pay for their support of the American Revolution against the British, their common enemy.
At a public meeting in April 1789, Réveillon suggested that “since bread is the foundation of the national economy, its distribution should be deregulated, permitting lower prices.” His comments were misquoted and it was rumored that he was advocating lowering the wages of an already impoverished worker class. An angry mob attacked and looted Réveillon’s home and factory, and all the wallpaper, glue, furniture and paintings were burned. Twenty-five people died in the melee, but Réveillon and his family escaped by climbing a wall and fleeing to the nearby Bastille—the soon-to-be stormed site of the outbreak of the Revolution during which Reveillon’s patron, the Queen, would be executed. Perhaps Réveillon’s comments about bread were the true origin of the statement attributed to the Queen who, when told of the shortage of bread allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” Hence Lauren Adams’ title.
Second-place was awarded to Sarah Irvin of Springfield, Va., who has been interested for some time in themes of family and memory. As a practicing artist, having a child has been both a challenge and an opportunity to interact artistically with the experience of motherhood. Historically, motherhood has spelled the end of a woman artist’s career, or at the least, strongly restricted it. More recently, the issue has come to the forefront, as demonstrated in a 2016 Artsy Magazine editorial by Maria Cashdan. Becoming a mother does not have to mean what it did, although all the women interviewed by Cashdan agreed it’s not easy. The pressures and realities of the art world still reflect “the values of a bygone era where masculinist hierarchies determine what constitutes ‘value’ and ‘success’,” said artist/mother Tara Donovan. “This is the same art world that privileges male artists at auction with exponentially higher prices than women.” Having children is a life-changing event, but “no one presumes it’s going to change [a man’s] work—their work is their work, and their private life is their private life.”
It had a dramatic effect on Sarah Irvin’s work. She turned to series works made with baby bottles rather than brushes, and a yearlong series of “Rocking Chair Drawings,” a selection of which are in the exhibit. Made nearly daily by applying graphite to the rockers and putting paper under them while the artist (and others) rocked the baby, they are, for Irvin, a response to “motherhood as a lived experience and a social construct.” Although “derived from the everyday, [they] provide an entry point into broader topics of gender, production, reproduction, care, biological processes and cultural systems.”
Third-place went to Baltimore photographer Ben Marcin, who also works in series; four of his latest, “Last House Standing,” are in the exhibit. Piqued by the anomaly of the solo row house found in many East Coast cities, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the artist chose to find and photograph them in all their “ghostly beauty.” “Standing alone,” he wrote, “in some of the most distressed neighborhoods, these 19th century structures were once attached to similar row houses that made up entire city blocks. Time and major demographic changes have resulted in the decay and demolition of many such blocks…” The course of this demolition often results in one house left standing, cut off from its original context, and exposed in a way that was never intended. Usually abandoned, they are sometimes still occupied, retaining only traces of their former elegance. The four examples in the exhibit show architectural details that might not have been very noticeable when attached in a row, but become apparent when everything around them has been torn down. An elaborate neo-classical cornice tops the ruin of a house painted yellow, remarkably intact while the rest of the building is not. Marcin’s photos capture a sense of the passage of time, of historical layers and a density of feeling, especially nostalgia and loss.
The exploration of “what was present but has been lost” is at the heart of the photographs of finalist William Wylie. His images are dramatically evocative and visually compelling. The photos here are from his current project on Pompeii, both of the ongoing archaeological discoveries there, as well as the conservation of the materials already collected. Pompeii was first excavated in the 18th century, and the site has undergone continuous change ever since. Wylie’s striking work features images of rows upon rows of plastic boxes containing bits of archaeological remains, all the same, some with tags, others not. All are covered with dust, a kind of archaeological site in itself. Wylie takes the photos so that these rows seem to be endless—one can almost smell the heavy atmosphere in such places. Close up and flattened, they convey a sense of the stratification of an archeological site. One of the four (#15-003) features a box isolated on a table containing a human skull and other bones, stamped with the name of the frequently seen official agency in charge of these collections. The sense of place and of the relationship between past and present is palpable.
The exhibit is on view through Sept. 24 at Gallery B, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Call 301-215-7990.