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Anything goes in CAA prize exhibition

Page full of 2 -- CAMBRIDGE -- There's a blessing and a curse to exhibitions such as the Cambridge Art Association National Prize Show: You never know what you'll find around the next corner. It's a mishmash of an exhibition, with no unifying theme, in media ranging from woodworking to photography. It sprawls through two galleries, blocks away from each other. Sifting through it, you may stumble on many lovely artworks; everything here was clearly made with skill and care. Unfortunately, in a show lacking any context, it's hard to stand out, and works that are merely good get lost in the clamor.

Over the last few years, the CAA has consistently lured prestigious jurors to sort through slides sent in by artists around the country. This year, Robert Fitzpatrick, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, strained his eyes for eight hours, viewing more than 4,000 slides from about 1,200 artists. He has put together a show surprisingly strong in photography but notably so-so in painting and sculpture. Fitzpatrick's award winners suggest he's generally more interested in conceptual art and cultural critique than he is in matters of craft and process, and that's to the detriment of the exhibit. You can quibble with ideas; it's hard to argue with something beautifully made.

Gwendolyn Holbrow, who won best of show, evidences Fitzpatrick's aesthetic. "Queen Kong" is a life-size Barbie clutching a squirming ape with a Ken-doll face in one red-clawed hand and groovy sunglasses in the other. It's a comical piece, exchanging the hypermasculinity of King Kong for the hyperfemininity of Barbie. It aptly suggests menace beneath Barbie's soft curves. But it doesn't mine any new vein in the realm of gender tension.

First prize went to Ray Martin for another funny piece: "Bacon Triglyph." Martin encased three fatty strips of bacon in clear resin and stood them on a wooden pedestal. Joseph Beuys used lard in his art; Jana Sterbak made a dress out of meat. Martin's work is smaller, neater, and clearly poking fun at museum displays. I'd have given him best of show; "Bacon Triglyph" is smarter and subtler than "Queen Kong."

As is one of the handful of second-prize pieces: Kerry Skarbakka's "Jesus!" It's a vivid color photo, one in a series in which the artist flings himself from great heights and captures an image of his fall. Here, he plummets beneath a shocking Christian billboard, along the lines of "The Passion of the Christ," depicting the bloody, crucified Jesus with text beneath his outstretched arms reading "I love you this much." The falling body below could mean anything: the human fall from grace, falling into or away from faith.

Other wonderful photos include the black-and-white "Nut," in which Miriam Goodman portrays a portly, nude, middle-age woman standing with dignity beside a stylized, almost clownish painting of a nude woman. John L. Swanson's "Night Boat," a color image, shows a peeling old hull mounted on blocks beside a barbed-wire fence, bathed in an eerie red glow that brings out every detail of the boat. Ranee Palone Flynn's deadpan black-and-white portrait of a nude couple chowing on subs duly won her the photography prize. Robert Pyle's black-and-white "Three Windows" is all about form: Three narrow windows admit light to a barn loft, carving patterns of shadow through the space, giving it the silence and harmony of a cathedral.

Amber Aguirre's "Classical Gas" hits a nerve as gas prices soar: She has taken the classic male Greco-Roman form, cut off at the arms, legs, and neck, and appended a gas pump nozzle where his genitals should be. Katherine Kluger's poignant installation of clay pairs of children's feet, each a different color and in a different stance, is the stuff of innocence. The sculpture award went to Michael Brown for his graceful music stand, crafted from cherry and ash and inspired by a Victorian fire screen. Its presence, and that of some ceramic vessels, suggests that CAA should inaugurate a craft category next year.

The painting nod goes to Jorge G. Costa's "South of Lisbon," an inviting, sky-deep landscape with subtle tonalities. Miki Carmi's starkly painted "Grandmom" pares the adornments of hair, neck, and shoulders off this portrait, spotlighting her translucent skin and proud bone structure. Stephen Coit's "T" is a clever construction of two hinged canvases, cornering at the folding door of the painted Green Line train; one side invites us onboard, the other ushers us out.

Another second prize went to Lin Xia Jiang's painting "American Ukiyoe High Kick," depicting three cheerleaders, legs lifted above their heads, obscuring their faces. It's well painted, but confounding. The artist's statement references Norman Rockwell and the 19th-century Japanese Ukiyoe

school of art, both of which emphasized patriotism. The painter, a naturalized citizen, declares this to be a purely patriotic painting as well, celebrating "the wholesome way of life of America today," and seems unaware of the potential sexual nature of the painting's imagery. Here, though, with "Queen Kong" just down the hall, it's hard for a viewer to miss. The strong emphasis on representation in photos, paintings, and sculpture overshadows the abstract works. Monica Goldsmith's "Apricot Sky," however, is memorable for its bright colors and interchange of flat planes interlocking over a mottled, alluring ground.

Prints make the worst showing here, although a silk-screen garnered one of the second prizes. "Christine" by Christine Murray depicts a sulking young woman. It comes from a body of work in which Murray tries to reappropriate the female gaze, often used for its seductive power, away from men. That's a tall order, and here her subjects' gaze is inward; the print glows with edgy, angry tones. Joohyun Pyune's lovely, sad dye-sublimation print hangs in a window, with sunlight pouring through layers of loose, billowing transparent fabric upon which she has printed images of women, one layered over the next, hands clasped in resignation.

This year's prize show has many such riches, but it takes attention and concentration to truly see them. The show is simply so big it's hard to navigate.

The Cambridge Art Association National Prize Show
At: Kathryn Schultz Gallery, 25 Lowell St., Cambridge, and University Place Gallery, 124 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through June 24. 617-876-0246; www.cambridgeart.org 

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