The Many Faces of Abby Sangiamo: A Retrospective at MICA

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American Contemporary Gallery in Annapolis

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Cult of Personality Article – from Art Info

Abby Sangiamo has been an infamous figure at MICA for as long as one can remember. He is known for his intense, frontal portraits in pastel and charcoal, and documenting an elite and personal group ‘Who’s Who’ at MICA. Sangiamo’s portraits run a range from topless art-hippie girls, gnarly biker guys, and frumpy-grumpy elders, all caricatures of personality.

The meat of Sangiamo’s sprawling retrospective at MICA is in a salon-style hall of portraits. Surrounded by so many confrontational faces, one can’t help feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and left out of the group. There is a tangible sense of the 1960’s and 70’s in these compressed personalities – local colors are decidedly flat, contours are bold, and volume is purposefully ignored, especially in faces.

Within all Sangiamo’s drawings, there is ambiguity; the viewer is unsure of the boundaries between the sitter’s unique characteristics and the artist’s imagination. In some cases, these are in bodily adornment or details: obviously imagined tattoos in a flat drawn style, coppertone-baby-esque tan lines, and excessive body hair all enhance or possibly disguise the true character of the sitter.

This retrospective includes several other bodies of work: a whole room full of trees, knot drawings, abstract charcoal drawings, landscapes, animal portraits, and a series of stylized abstract paintings arranged like mandalas. I have to admit, these ‘other’ works which make up about 50% of the show seem extraneous. The power and interest lie in the hall of portraits, that are Sangiamo’s hallmark, which begs the question: How much is too much in a retrospective?

We discussed the idea in my class at MICA this week, along with students’ reactions to the show. A retrospective is generically defined as “an art exhibition assembled to allow a look back at an individual artist’s career.” Everyone agreed – they would prefer a ‘greatest hits’ approach, rather than seeing every skeleton in the closet.

Sangiamo is an incredibly prolific and energetic artist – the crowded, chaotic way that the works are hung reinforces this, in a good way. A viewer is literally blown away by the amount of works on display and also by their variety and range. However, any curatorial approach that encourages viewers to ‘skip over’ or skim certain parts of the show, in order to focus on the ‘good parts’ isn’t doing the artist any favors.

A Retrospective: Abby Sangiamo is on display at MICA through December 19. Despite a need for some editing, this exhibit is inspiring, amusing, and haunting. Sangiamo’s portraits are his unique contribution to Baltimore’s contemporary art community and no one out there does it like he does. If you are a MICA graduate from the last thirty years, chances are good that your mug is up on the wall and you’ve got some new tattoos!

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