A quick peek at what's in area galleries this week
Published: February 16, 2011
We local art-writer types rarely talk about local museum and gallery exhibitions in tandem, though the arts community here is pretty close-knit. Right now, however, three local institutions have exhibitions that together create a dynamic discussion about race, politics, (hi)story, and visual art. What follows is by no means the only way to explore the shows—reviews of these individual exhibitions will come in subsequent issues—merely the passing thoughts of one wandering brain.
Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists opened last weekend at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and it’s a streamlined look at eight contemporary artists who conduct personal, poignant investigations of identity and history. Each of the eight—Sonya Clark, Torkwase Dyson, Maya Freelon Asante, Maren Hassinger, Chakaia Booker, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Joyce J. Scott (whose solo Li’l Lies and Purty Things runs through March 9 at the Goya Contemporary), and Renée Stout—deliver strong pieces to the exhibition. Curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson, the Lewis Museum’s director of collections and exhibitions, has organized them into a holistic dialogue, where the choice of material and the narrative it tells inform the emotional response to the work as much as the form and content of the work itself.
In this respect, a first blush with the exhibition has produced a personal favorite: Booker. The New Jersey-born, New York-based artist is currently serving as the acting director of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture while Hassinger is on sabbatical, and the four pieces in Material make one wish somebody would sponsor a solo show for her while she’s in town. Since the 1990s, Booker has repurposed automobile tires for her sculptures, and what she does with them is amazing. Cutting, slicing, polishing, and otherwise finely honing the tires—the undeniable creative labor that goes into all the works in Material is one of its subtle themes—Booker creates arresting sculptures. The wall-mounted “The Fatality of Hope” is a sculptural relief that immediately announces its urban origins: Yes, tires are the sort of discarded items frequently found in abandoned city lots, but the graceful curves and dynamic designs that Booker creates with them also recall the expressive lines and bold gestures of graffiti. The rubber strands and coils and curls are also a highly polished slick black, like a glossy streak of spray paint. Just as some critics saw the sound of late-’40s New York jazz in Jackson Pollock’s paintings, it’s possible to see the lyrical intelligence of a different era in Booker’s work: the ecstatic freedom of the late-’60s and into the ’70s.
This sense of political gesture, the process of medium bleeding into message—and undergoing further transformations—also crops up in the Contemporary Museum’s Agitated Histories. This final installment in the Project 20 series celebrating the museum’s two-decade existence brings together six individual artists whose installations and works treat history, and often fairly recent history, as moments as malleable as clay. These artists—Los Angeles’ Rodney McMillian and New York-based artists Michael Cataldi, Lorraine O’Grady, Mark Tribe, and Berliner Ulrike Müller—each blur the lines between social facts and imaginative fictions, but it’s Chicago’s Geof Oppenheimer whose pieces instantly tickle the brain. His 2006-’07 video installation “Washington Color Field School” restages Senate hearings for maximum theatricality, while his 2010 “On Black Flags” project takes snippets of political speeches and mounts the words onto black cards, which are then photographed being held up by an unseen model. It’s a process that not only strips political rhetoric from its defining context, but effortlessly illuminates the permeable membrane separating political message from the vocabulary of advertising. The only difference is, sometimes, who and what is doing the selling—and who and what is being sold.
And the knotty marriage of context and message also runs through MICA’s The Narcissism of Minor Differences as well. Cribbing its name from Sigmund Freud’s exploration of othering—“It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggression” he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents—the exhibition aims to confront the passive identity flattening of multiculturalism, to take a hard, steady look at so-called differences and see them for what they are. As curated by Gerald Ross, MICA’s director of exhibitions, and Christopher Whittey, the Maine College of Art’s vice president of academic affairs and dean, the show delivers on this premise with only one real misfire—Jonathan Borofsky’s “Both the fascist and the idealist search for perfection,” in which he photographically compares himself to Hitler, the sort of conceptual construct that feels like it was born of a really consciousness-expanding time at Burning Man.
Fortunately, the Borofsky photographic installation stands almost directly across from something much more powerful. The 2005 “Note to Self” by Mary Coble is a large floor-rug-sized array of more than 400 white notecards on which what appears to be a name seems to be inconsistently printed. It’s not until you see the photograph of the artist to the right of the installation that you get a clear understanding of how they were created: The cards are the products of a performance piece for which Coble had the names of 438 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people who were murdered as the result of hate crimes etched into her skin by tattoo needles without any ink. Her bleeding skin was used as the printing plate to transfer the blood to the cards. It’s a profoundly powerful statement—the names cover the entirety of Coble’s back, legs, and arms—and one that is a gut-punching reminder that the cultural, ethnic, racial, etc., differences that cause people to act heinously in contemporary society aren’t always so plainly written on the body.
Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists runs through Oct. 16 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Agitated Histories runs through May 1 at the Contemporary Museum. The Narcissism of Minor Differences runs through March 13 at the MICA Decker Gallery.
OPENING THIS WEEK Works by Valerie Piraino—MICA graduate student in installation, sculpture, and photography—opens Feb. 18 in the Fox building with a reception from 5-7 p.m.; that day at noon, Piraino conducts a gallery talk with MICA Curator-in-Residence George Ciscle. Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new photography exhibition featuring more than 200 pieces from the permanent collection curated by Kristen Hileman, opens Feb. 20. Color Me Bad—the group show featuring Joshua Abelow, Brian Dunn, Ted Gahl, and Hugh Scott-Douglas—opens Feb. 19 at Nudashank (co-operated by City Paper contributor Alex Ebstein) with a reception from 7-10 p.m. Neil Meyerhoff leads a gallery talk about his latest photograph exhibition at the C. Grimaldis Gallery Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. And the group show Of House and Home opens Feb. 19 at the Whole Gallery with a reception from 7-11 p.m.
CLOSING The cheeky Gary Kachadourian-curated Self Portrait as Rock Star ends Feb. 18 at Current Gallery. Steven Riddle and Amy Boone-McCreesh’s work in the John Fonda Gallery of the Theatre Project ends Feb. 20.
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