What do we value most in art? Which facets in the wild kaleidoscope of international art trends do we hold to our hearts or mind? What best represents our region? This year, the Sondheim’s Semi-Finalists restrained and uneven exhibition at the Maryland Institute’s Meyerhof Gallery slid around much of the edge between aesthetics, concepts, identities, traditional mediums and experimental formats. There were exceptions. As in the BMA’s show, there is a preponderance of photography and video, which, if seen only by itself, begins to reveal this year’s curatorial perspective. Considering America’s unstable turbulence, one would have expected more bite, if not blood.
Joseph Letourneau’s Desperate Times, with its cliché illusion of a neglected wishing well, where no penny will ever reach its intended plunge, plays upon the ironic state of our American self-pity and pulverized sense of real vs. facsimile. On the floor is a wealth of actual pennies, which for waste prone Americans, no longer holds enough value to pick up. On one level it’s a worn insight into illusions, frustrated wishes and devalued money. Yet taken from the larger human perspective, it is a callous declaration of our own abused abundance, numb values and myopic perspective. For the moment, those pennies can still save lives in other nations.
As a former military man who picks up pennies because the name of God in on them, what struck home is the casual disconnection between value and honor. I wonder how many viewers gave the pennies much more than a swift conceptual nod, rather than consider the desecrated fabric of our heritage so blithely trampled underfoot.
On a more upbeat note, Ben Marcin’s grid of 16 mostly single Baltimore row houses offers up a two-step look into the determined ethos of our crumbling communities. The combination is both playful and poignant and has staying power. The tension between what stands to meet tomorrow and what has been lost encapsulates not only the broad cycles of life, but lays open the current economic crisis of a culture in decline. While the charm of his colorful selections easily draws and sustains the eye, what unfolds with greater power are the ghosts of former row houses. For once the grid is used intelligently as a quilt like encapsulation, which dusts the scent of our long gone grandparents, neighbors and friends, and in that broad reach up from past to present, the houses radiate a jaunty, bittersweet hope that determinedly smiles with future dreams.
As for ghosts, like Jules Verne on cocaine, Kelly Bell gave us a delightful and irritating plunge into an alternate Victorian film confection, Where Ghosts Come From.It is a curiously dated looking, yet timeless mechanism that is handsome in its stiff etchings, tireless in its human mulching and amusing in its literal determination. Perhaps a little too close to overused mystery theatre graphics, it’s still fun a few times through. But after several minutes attempting to watch another nearby video which was murdered by the proximity, I could have shot the speaker off the ceiling.
In Eric Dyer’s new work, The Bellows March, the art of film jumps into a fever pitch alternate universe.Potent, dazzling and disturbing, it critiques the relentless pace of our times and confronts us with questions that bring to mind Arthur Koestler’s book, Ghost in the Machine. Dyer’s small screen greets us at one entrance of the show like a hell bent jewel box. My immediate impression is that it should have been projected onto a larger format, large enough for a few chairs. I wanted to jump into the experience. While some film in the exhibition elicits more power in title than in content, Dyer militantly builds and overloads with psychotic hallucination, candy colored forms that evolve through a range of associations, from undersea life to North Korea’s public marches. It is difficult to watch, but in a fascinating way that captures the eye and mind as the symphony writhes through relentless pattern shifts. Dyer’s increasingly visionary aim brought to mind Ravel’s Bolero. He is ever the artist to watch.
One curious subset of artists played linear elements gracefully off each other. Richard Vosseller’s sculpture, This is Not a Love Song,consists of several heavy timbers set on several stones, which formed an asymmetrical set of intersections capped by an awkward steel support. Blunt, raw and fledgling alpha male, its architectural associations were a welcome relief from some of the more pedestrian works in the show. Nearby Mindy Hirts’ vaporous pale pink thread installation ran to an extreme female counterpart of sensitive system networking. On the other side, J.T. Kirkland’s pared down acrylic on plywood abstractions escaped the gender venting through a cerebral elegance that could gain considerable power if scaled up to more commanding sizes. Then off to one side, were Magnolia Laurie’s enigmatic paintings. They are lovely gems of implication and veiled invitation, which bear closer inspection and repeat visits.
What followed me out of the show was Jo Smail’s surprising Bee’s Hymn.It is the kind of restrained mystery of painted form torqued and edging into surprising itself, that in turn, I did not recognize it as hers at first. A shaped canvas of modest size, it is complete in of itself, all feline muscle tensed with the joy of simply being. Is it the song of joy or of business? Its penetration is obliquely slow, which is a mature gift that few artists master and fewer people take the time to unpack. This quiet jewel will have staying power a century from now.
Smail has two additional large canvases which greet the viewer from the other entrance to the exhibition. Her work is gaining a commanding altitude of abstraction that gracefully breathes with a quiet, self-contained dry humor and scintillating wit, even as her images gain a greater boldness. Figure in Plaid Walking a Doghas a succinct command of the paint loaded stroke that ran my eyes in ways nothing else did, leaving bits of paint delightfully embedded in my eyelids. Strips of unpainted canvas layered upon each other like virgin skins and communion veils brought to mind questions of the spirit. Yet, being so taken in by the sweep, it took a few moments to notice the small sly canvas off to one side, near the floor, Dog.