Sondheim semi-finalist show at MICA

Amanda Burnham's untitled shadow-box-like installation is almost exemplary of the Sondheim semifinalists show as a whole. Big, representative, abstract, maximal, minimal, reflective, and expressive all at once. (Audrey Gatewood / July 23, 2014)

Sondheim Semifinalists

Through Aug. 3 at Fox Hall at MICA

The thing about the Sondheim Semifinalists show: It is just too fucking big. I mean this “too big” not quite as a criticism, and almost as a compliment, as if talking about an imagination, a joint, a drink, a penis, or a vacation. But still, like indulging in any of those things, it leaves you spent. For this reason, it is one of the best representations of the city’s art scene, partially because the external jurors are able to break through the cliques and micro-scenes and friendships and bring together a wide variety of artists and smash them all into one utterly overwhelming space. 

So, I am not going to talk about everything at the show—140 works by 32 artists in all—or this review would feel like the travelogue of one of those jackasses who “does Paris” in an afternoon and then races off to “do Prague.” Instead, I want to encourage anyone who cares about art in the city to go out and see the show and become frustrated, fascinated, and perhaps even infuriated by the work on display. 

I come to this strategy after spending the last couple hours trying to write sentences that made some sense out of the great profusion, focusing first on the way that some works seem to follow the finalist show at the Walters and view art as exploration. But there are so many works that don’t fit that schematic that I turned to the whimsical or surreal works such Nora Sturges’ fabulous small Max Ernst-like surrealist oil paintings looking for an air of lonesome whimsy. But, no, everything feels singular. So, I give up on synthesis. Instead, here’s some stuff I thought was cool. 

Tiny Inventions (the name of a collaboration between Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter) offer a couple different mixed-media animations that are featured in the actual miniature bakery and the characters that people ‘Between Times,’ their video based on the temporal ruminations of Alan Lightman’s book “Einstein’s Dream.” The short trailer, coming in at just over a minute, is gorgeous, as each of the characters who enter the bakery has a different sense of time. It shows, as all art in some way should, the wonder that we all exist on the same plane at all, causing the viewer to marvel at her own consciousness. And yet, the figures and sets that populate these stop-motion films are also cloyingly cute. They are somehow reminiscent of early HBO shows such as “Fraggle Rock” and recent offerings such as “Hugo,” while being wholly original. Another film, ‘Something Left, Something Taken,’ uses similar figures to create a moment of true menace. 

Trevor Young’s large oil paintings also manage to be both historically referential, technically astute, and emotionally impacting. ‘Road Factor’ is a gray-paletted post-industrial landscape that holds all the forlorn beauty of a neighborhood like Baltimore’s Curtis Bay. ‘3 Squares’ is a painting of a lit stairwell at night, dark sinuous trees lurking just outside in darkness. But, as in Magritte’s “Empire of Lights,” there is an incongruous juxtaposition of the dark night of the foreground and the blue sky peeking in through the doors inside the stairwell. ‘Permanent Settlement,’ which seems like a desert town seen from an airplane, is remarkable for its use of a thick, shiny baroque blackness. 

Dustin Carlson’s ‘UFO’ is in the same vein as his wheelie-ing dirt bike from last year’s show, but this year, this readymade consists of two tall lights, like you might find at a construction zone, and a blue roadblock between them. There’s something weird about a work like this. I generally love Carlson’s work, but I almost want to hate this piece. Then, I realize how it affects the rest of my experience of the space, and I can’t help but like it again.

The same goes for Benjamin Kelley’s ‘Untitled (Newport),’ which is part of the body of a Chrysler Newport cut in half and lying sideways on the floor. It reminds me of some punk kids who lived next to me in college. They had a similar model car whose door read “Fuck art, drink beer.” On the inside of the trunk they’d painted “Fuck you pig.” That was better, but this is still pretty cool. 

I hesitate to say too much about Fred Scharmen’s insanely rational line drawings, because he’s a friend, but I will point out that the graphite on wall of the gallery, ‘The hypothesis that love stories are stories of form,’ is utterly mesmerizing and required him to stand up on a lift for three 10-hour days in a row to complete it. I’ve stared at it for a while, but don’t understand it at all. 

Amanda Burnham’s untitled shadow-box-like installation, which uses paper cutouts to create trees, vines, light posts, and electrical lines which lead to a mad profusion of exploding streets and colorful craziness, is almost exemplary of the show as a whole. Big, representative, abstract, maximal, minimal, reflective, and expressive all at once. 

Perhaps the most puzzling pieces were Chad Tyler’s There’s a Rhinoceros in the River series of photos that show a rhino by the Jones Falls. In front of the series of photos there is a small plastic rhino, which one gathers is the same one in the pictures. It seemed at first that it was a trick of photographic perspective which made it look lifesize. Then, however, I realized it was probably a trick of Photoshop, and felt a bit let down, but then even this disappointment feels like part of the piece. 

And there’s BmoreArt’s Cara Ober (an occasional CP contributor) with her lush, oxidized, and deeply layered reflections on decoration and Aharon Bumi’s exquisite little collages that recall the beginning of the form with Braque and Picasso. Or turn again to find Lu Zhang’s hand-cut acrylic 2-D representation of the world’s most expensive vase lying on the floor, as if it had been dropped, just beside Joshua Haycraft’s funny Alan Resnik-like ‘BHBITB Mission Statement’ video, which is across from  Diane Szczepaniak’s cool Rothko-esque watercolors.

And there, I’ve gone and done it and let myself babble on about the wild profusion of this show as if some mad Noah trying to scribble the names of each critter as it crawls aboard the ark. And still, I’ve only mentioned a few. But now, it feels somehow appropriate because time will wash over this moment in which all of these artists occupy the city. It is an especially fruitful moment—one well worth documenting.