Sondheim show rarely disappoints
Published: July 6, 2011
Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2011 Finalists
Through Aug. 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art
The 2011 Sondheim Prize will be announced July 9 at the BMA at 7:30 p.m.
Louie Palu’s “A Wounded Soldier in a medevac helicopter after a night raid, Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan” is the most immediately arresting image in the entire Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2011 Finalists exhibit for this pair of eyeballs. The Washington, D.C.-based photographer has focused on the war in Afghanistan and the detainees at Guantanamo Bay since 2006, and has spent time embedded with American and Canadian forces in Afghanistan. His documentary photojournalism has already earned awards, and his work has appeared in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal.
The ongoing War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, with its embedded journalists and constant new media coverage and the global reach of non-American media, is one of the most widely photographed military activities in history—out of sight and mind only by Americans who willingly put their heads in the sand. Just the sheer number of eyes following it and the number of outlets where those documenting eyes can post their images overwhelms. Thanks to activist/watchdog organizations, images perhaps censored by the military, governmental intelligence, and mainstream media foibles are also finding their way into mass view. Remember, we weren’t supposed to see those heinous snapshots from Abu Ghraib.
So when an image from this war catches you off guard, you take notice. And “Wounded Soldier” is one such image: A young soldier lies on what appears to be a stretcher, presumably in a helicopter per the title, his face and top of his uniform covered in debris of some sort. The only illumination is an intensely cold blue light coming from somewhere on/inside the helicopter. And the combination of debris and this light makes the young man look, well, sci-fi futuristic. His skin takes on an almost metal sheen, his right eye is closed and part of his face not entirely discernible. He looks almost Terminator man/machine, and because he’s looking directly into the camera, the effect is unnerving.
And it’s an effective reminder that even in a war from which we’ve seen so many images, we haven’t seen everything. That’s a good attitude to adopt when taking in the five finalists for the 2011 Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize. On the surface (save one exception), this batch looks like the most conventionally safe group of finalists in the prize’s six-year existence. The group includes two photographers, Palu and the Washington-based Mark Parascandola, who work in almost a strictly documentary fashion; a sculptor, Rachel Rotenberg, who is almost assuredly going to be fending off adjectives such as “organic” and “earthy”; a filmmaker, Matthew Porterfield, who has already started to establish a name for himself as a rising star of the American art-house. The one who is not like the others is performance artist/filmmaker Stephanie Barber, whose undeniable sense of play camouflages an intellectual rigor and metaphysical uncertainty that infuses her work with emotion.
It’s a little too easy to wander through some of the galleries without being struck by the work—save Palu’s, whose war photography is as visually dynamic as the subject matter is charged. Over his 24 photos, the titles often give away the farm—”Horse killed by improvised explosive device, Arghandab District, Kandahar, Afghanistan”—but they hold the eye because of the choices he made when looking through the viewfinder, and the blunt fact of what you see. These are not the images you see in the mainstream media. They feel like the excised outtakes of a film.
Parascandola’s imagery also recalls movies. His 14 photos were all taken in Spain’s southeastern Almeria region, where old movie sets for spaghetti westerns still dot the dusty countryside. His camera captures some of these old sets—see “Texas Hollywood” No. 1 and No. 2—but the images themselves actually recall the work of Iranian filmmakers Majid Majidi and Jaffar Panahi, where issues of class appear in the very mise-en-scene of a movie’s shot selection. Parascandola lets the architectural and mercantile landscape of a place tell a story about who has lived there. You just need to get past the initial visual beauty of Parascandola’s images to take in his thematic concerns.
What makes Porterfield such an original voice as a filmmaker is what makes his work so listless when installed in a gallery. He’s an emerging master of the thoughtful and considered, and in his two features with cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier they’ve spawned a definite look and pace for their composed but understated visual language, one that accrues momentum slowly. Porterfield doesn’t have that luxury in a gallery setting, and his “Days Are Golden Afterparty” suffers from an attempt to showcase his narrative and visual strengths in a more compact time frame. The 1-minute loop is a nonnarrative, experimental short composed of 72 cellphone photos printed large scale; a nine column by 8 row array of these images is installed on the wall opposite the video monitor. The content and composition of the stills themselves are familiar, very indicative of Porterfield’s interests in the personal and the everyday. And while he’s able to showcase his spry editing confidence in the video—it’s ripe with witty match cuts—it ends up feeling like a sprint of virtuosic technique with the subtle emotional wrinkles all but ironed out. It’s like trying to wrap your head around Mick Barr’s entire oeuvre by listening to only one Orthrelm track.
Rotenberg’s exquisite skill may also hide in her work’s overall effect. She makes sculpture out of large pieces of cedar and vine, and the resulting wall- and floor-installed sculptures exude a patina of the natural. For her 10 pieces here, Rotenberg favors lived-in colors associated with old farms and farming equipment: musty blues, rusty reds, various intensities of ochre. The pieces’ immensity almost overwhelms—they’re as solid and imposing as a tree stump—and Rotenberg’s preferred shapes—curves, coils, circles—give off an air of the natural world, of things that might grow, maybe not in Maryland, but certainly in, say, Rivendell or something.
Many of Rotenberg’s pieces include forms, curves, hollowed out cavities, and folds that could occur in the natural world, but not with the wood with which she works. Her hands have made things that look like they only could’ve been carved by Mother Nature.
The multi-talented Barber is the only finalist for whom City Paper didn’t receive any promotional images. And while Barber’s gallery space includes two shorts, her Sondheim finalist work is still being created. Barber has recreated her studio in the BMA’s galleries: a sheet of plywood resting atop two sawhorses forms her desk, where two computers sit. Clippings from magazines—to be scanned and possibly animated—have been taped to the walls. A trio of lights stand in front of a green-screen applied to the wall, with a series of masking tape “x” marks on the floor. A camera points at the wall. Stacks of photo release forms sit on the desk. A toy piano sits off to one side. And depending on the time of day you hit the BMA, Barber is there either interacting with visitors or sitting atop a bright blue ball chair working on the day’s video. The goal: “31 days/31 videos,” a video-qua-installation-qua-performance that Barber is working on through the exhibition’s run.
It’s a blithe and tremendously giving gesture. Language is a big part of Barber’s videos and performances, in as much as she uses it in intentionally awkward and revealing ways, and this sophisticated understanding of communication’s grammar and syntax seeps into her film language as well. There’s a low-tech gloss to the work.“Bust Chance” is a short where the only sounds you hear are audience clapping and laughter, often separated by long pauses; in “Dwarfs the Sea,” a distorted voice narrates hypothetical stories to a series of still photos of anonymous men. In both instances, the relatively simple ideas elicit profoundly stirring moments that sneak up on you: a snapshot of social neediness and acceptance in “Bust Chance,” a consideration of abject loneliness in “Dwarfs the Sea.”
Barber’s work as a whole manages to steer you toward considerations of weighty questions you can only answer for yourself. And that’s what makes her Sondheim finalists experiment so generous. It’s a chance to watch and collaborate with an artist preoccupied with creating something, anything, to hold on to in the infinite nothingness of everyday existence. And not a cave-graffiti “I was here” memento mori, more a present tense stake in the here and now, something that calmly trumpets, “I am.”
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