'Edgy' Show a Change of Pace for College Gallery

In Retrospective, A View of Artist's Dadaist Approach

By Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Tom Berault is not accustomed to fielding complaints about artwork shown in Prince George's Community College's Marlboro Gallery in Largo. The curator had never been asked to respond to a gallery-goer's philosophical objections – until the current exhibition.

Collage imagery by Chicago artist Helene Smith-Romer diverges from the straightforward photographic, painting and sculpture work that the gallery presents in four shows each year. "Confessions of a Dadaist: The Collage Imagery of Helene Smith-Romer, 1979-2004" runs until noon Wednesday.

"It's edgy work. It's one of the best shows we've ever had. in a sense. It's really cutting-edge art," Berault said of the works produced by his former photography graduate school classmate at the University of Illinois.

A collage of Hitler as a boy, portraying his loving family, juxtaposed against the words "Hitler was a romantic" was the root of one viewer's complaint about the exhibition. The piece is tied to two others, a collage that imposes the words "I love that Hitler furniture" atop an old furniture advertisement, and a large quote stating that once a specific crime hasbeen committed, it is more likely to be committed again. Smith-Romer said she made the piece in response to Nazism, hatred and racism. Ironically, part of her intention was to warn people to beware of the visual and to read imagery carefully. "Hitler was a romantic because Hitler was an art student who failed. . . . He designed stationery for rallies, and he had engulfed the people in visual components," she said. "Even if we demonize somebody, they are human too. What does evil look like? It could be you, it could be me, it could be any of us."

Although she has her own interpretations, what fascinates Smith-Romer is the expectation that viewers will interpret it based on their experiences "People bring their own memories when they're looking at artwork. I'm dealing with time and the unconscious and the idea of the present --meaning now and the history that the observer brings into the piece of work," she said.

For 25 years, Smith-Romer, 55, has studied art, photography, philosophy,literature and film. Her work has evolved from standard photography to collage pieces done in the Dadaist tradition. Dadaism was an early 20th-century movement that rejected artistic conventions and often contained anti-bourgeois, anarchic, humorous and satirical themes.

"I consider myself a Dadaist because of my attitude. It's my politicalness, use of alternative ways of printing, use of fact and fiction and the idea of parody and the absurd," she said. Many of Smith-Romer's works combine pieces of pictures from old Life and Look magazines and recent newspaper clippings. She makes small collages out of mass-produced items such as Tootsie Pop wrappers and newspaper stories about world events, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Randomness and chance dictate the placement of each object. In herseries, "Dis/Integration Homage to Four Women Dadaists," the collages take a stylized shape of a human body. After creating a collage, she photographs it, and then reproduces the negative image on a color copier and enlarges it before framing it.

Smith-Romer used a similar process to make biographical scrapbooks and other series in the artist's mid-career retrospective. Pop art that is part of the traveling I Due Art 4 You Museum, a former Dadaist institution she revived 10 years ago, is also in the exhibition. The strange knickknacks include trading cards from Desert Storm showing how soldiers wear chemical gear and a camouflaged pack of condoms that pictures Saddam Hussein and says, "If his father had used a condom, there wouldn't be a Saddam," among more vulgar statements.

Berault defends the objects in his gallery. They are, at the very least, thought-provoking, he said.

That's exactly how Smith-Romer defines her artistic achievement.

"Even if artwork makes you mad, it succeeds," she said. "Even if you don't like it, it succeeds." "Confessions of a Dadaist: The Collage Imagery of Helene Smith-Romer, 1979-2004" runs until noon Wednesday at Prince George's Community College's Marlboro Gallery, 301 Largo Rd., Largo. Admission to the gallery is free; its hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday. 301-322-0965.

 

2004 The Washington Post Company

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