For every important and compelling artist involved in the Baker Artist Awards exhibition, there is a tedious, tone-deaf one not far behind.
The six winners from 2014 and 2015 for the competition, managed by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, come from Baltimore or one of the five nearby counties, receive $25,000, and have their work on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Nov. 15. Also on view are the six b-grant winners from the past two years (each get $5,000).
The juxtaposition of artists is jarring. Next to 2015 winner Paul Rucker's raw-nerve explorations of racism, the "Birth of a Nation Project," featuring Ku Klux Klan robes redesigned with colorful fabrics illustrating that racism is very much in fashion right now, is 2014 winner, sculptor Brent Crothers' 'Reinventing The Wheel #7.' It's a peace sign made from a copper wheel and a three-pronged piece of wood and it's possibly the worst piece of art I've ever seen in a museum of the BMA's caliber. 'Reinventing The Wheel #7' is deeply naive at best and at worst, willfully ignorant to the nuances of political change. More so when you've got Rucker's knotty work mean-mugging it from across the room.
On the Baker Artist Awards website, Crothers notes, "I'm still working through September 11th, 2001," and tells a story that following those events he began making these peace signs. In that context it is an affecting piece of personal therapy but as art in a museum, given a nice chunk of cash no less, it is absolutely terrible. Other Crothers sculptures are also too sincere if more clearheaded and entertaining. 'Western Logic,' a large trunk wound tight with copper wire as if the wires are strangling it, is a clever-enough comment on the impulses of the so-called "civilized" West to control everything, even if that means performing the uncivilized act of killing it in the process. And 'Synergy' is a Monty Python-esque piece of sculpture as satire: An intricate pile of mostly interconnected copper pipes all intertwined try and fail to do what one properly built system of pipes could do, highlighting the absurdity of corporate speak where words like "synergy" are batted around but are really just synonymous with bureaucracy.
But that fucking peace sign, man.
To be fair, Crothers is the worst of the winners and shit else here can compare with artist and cellist Rucker anyway. Along with Rucker's "Birth Of A Nation Project": throw rugs featuring postcard images of lynched black men; cello faces brutally scratched, burned, or broken apart, each piece's title derived from a date in history of a hate crime (one face, split in half entirely, is titled 'June 7, 1998,' after James Byrd who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck); a series of animated videos set to Rucker's worried cello compositions that depict the way slave populations align with contemporary prison populations.
And you leave Rucker's part of the exhibition with his most caustic pieces: 'When Black Lives Mattered,' an 18th-century branding iron "used to mark captured runaway slaves," the description says, resting on a pillow (the pillow's cover is 100 percent cotton); and 'One Less Thing To Worry About,' a throw towel featuring the image of a boy in a hoodie with a target on him, his hands gripping an iced tea and a bag of Skittles—a reference to what Trayvon Martin was holding when he was confronted by George Zimmerman and killed.
The best Baker Artist work here is, like Rucker's, explicitly political, exploratory art. 2015 winner Kevin Gift/Wendel Patrick, a photographer and musician, merges ruminative jazz, classical, and hip-hop appraisals with the temporal qualities of the Baltimore Uprising. A series of music videos and live performances show Gift/Patrick exploring his aliases (as Gift he is a classical composer, as Patrick a hip-hop producer, and as a photographer he is both) and reminds viewers of the tedium and labor it takes to make music. In one video, Patrick recreates rapper Nas and producer DJ Premier's classic 'NY State Of Mind,' loosening up its clenched-fist atmosphere with some jazzy conviviality. The video begins with Patrick obsessively studying the track. It is the hip-hop-head version of trying to paint like one of the masters.
Next to these videos of Patrick holed up in his studio or intensely focused on the stage, sonically tracing the lines of his musical heroes (other videos include a Thelonious Monk-like take on Gershwin's 'Summertime' and a psychedelic jazz-funk improvisation with the Out Of Your Head Collective), are six photographs taken during the uprising. They are in stark, almost gooey black and white. 'Protestor On North Avenue' shows a man slightly out of focus, clutching his chest, an apt expression of the almost overwhelming fervor felt during the uprising. Another, 'Baltimore City Police at Penn/North,' shows police officers lined up, one of them casually checking his cellphone, an odd detail that humanizes the police and nods to the banality of evil at the same time. Gift/Patrick reconciles the interior world with the exterior—being in one's head and being out on the streets.
Activist and bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, who won the Baker Artist award last year, makes buoyant jazz, especially on 'Blues For Tahrir Suite—Reflections' which has a kind of weighty honk appropriate for a composition that ponders the contingencies of the Arab Spring. Marcus' cleanly post-bop jazz sits somewhere between out-there and traditional—where most cogent jazz rests—but it should've been more creatively displayed. All we get are three live videos showing three different performances by Marcus.
There is, however, a tinge of respectability politics at play in the decision to award Rucker, Gift/Patrick, and Marcus. Their work is the "right" kind of political art and choosing them perpetuates the European-American understanding that art from people of color is only successful when it is overtly political. And in the cases of musical conservatives, Gift/Patrick and Marcus, the award threatens to place too much value on traditionalism.
Filmmaker Eric Dyer, a 2015 winner, looks back to the origins of animation. He is a less conventional though also less engaging traditionalist than Patrick/Gift or Marcus. Dyer 3-D prints small surreal landscapes—'Geotrope #1 Zoetrope' looks like a crop-circle design and 'Geotrope #3 Zoetrope,' Stonehenge by way of some trippy train garden—encloses them in glass, hangs a flickering light and a small camera over the top of them, and spins the landscape, creating an ornate strobing effect. The result are hypnotic at first but once you get it, you get it. It's fun to look at but that isn't enough. It's telling that Dyer comes from the world of film and animation; he is far too concerned with aesthetics and short on big ideas.
2014 winner Chris Bathgate strikes a better balance between shtick and significance with his colorful, bubbly aluminum sculptures, which recall "Doctor Who's" sonic screwdriver, "Robotech," and recent retrolicious work like "Pacific Rim." Bathgate designs and makes his machines himself and they look back to a time when design could have personality—the pre-Apple approach, before Steve Jobs sold us a dystopic plain white aesthetic and told us it represented utopia. It is nostalgic work, though wanting to a return to a time when manufacturing wasn't so heartless moves beyond simple "good ol' days" thinking.
Before we keep going: Rucker, Crothers, Gift/Patrick, Marcus, Dyer, and Bathgate, those awarded the $25,000 Baker Artist Award grant, are all men. Since 2009, only four of 21 winners have been women. In 2014 and 2015, three men and three women did receive the $5,000 b-grant: Jowita Wyszomirska, Ed Gross, David Paul Bacharach, Renée Rendine, Dominique Zeltzman, and Timmy Reed. The inclusion of the b-grant winners does offset the gender disparity a little bit, though it further highlights the failure of a few of the winners, namely Dyer and Crothers.
Whereas Dyer seems delighted or just plain "intrigued" by the existence of nanotechnology, 2015 b-grant winner Dominique Zeltzman is horrified by the presence of cameras in our lives and, more important, the lives of those in the city more susceptible to harm than herself. 'Waiting For Something To Happen' screens footage from Baltimore's "blue light" surveillance cameras with a collage of audio commenting on the extent to which citizens are watched when they are assumed to be doing something wrong, which is often or always, especially if they are black and male and in a "high crime" area. We hear women and children comment on the videos, quoting a lawyer who imagines a self-imposed Orwellian future where everybody sports body cameras just in case they are arrested. At one point, a woman sings 'Ave Maria' over footage of the camera zooming and frantically whipping around, looking for crime. Near the video are a number of isolated frames from the security footage hung like photographs. These are moments of askew beauty—how a street light hits the grimy sidewalk from above—that don't overpower the seriousness of the exhibit.
Both 2014 b-grant winner Jowita Wyszomirska's 'Accretion' and 2015 winner Renée Rendine 'Periphery' counter Crothers' self-seriousness by nodding to the natural world with pop-art immediacy. Wyszomirska's installation 'Accretion,' a black, blue, purple, and white mass that climbs up the wall of the BMA, looks like a black-blooded Lovecraftian creature just exploded. It's Ruskinian "savageness" by way of Urban Outfitters. And Rendine's 'Periphery' consists of five buggy sculptures made of what look like glasses or clear plastic cups maybe tied together with twist ties—the sculptures resemble a hive or an anthill made out of products you could scoop up at the local dollar store. Tying these together demands subtlety and obsession and calls attention to the physicality of tiny gestures, curbs condescending ideas that sewing and weaving are lesser "woman's work," and celebrates the shabby nobility of creation.
While art from the women in the show in all three cases explores similar themes to Baker Artist winners in much more compelling ways, the dudes are a disappointment. The work of 2014 b-grant winners David Paul Bacharach and Ed Gross resemble Pier 1 Imports and late Rauschenberg (that's to say, bad Rauschenberg), respectively, and 2015 b-grant winner, author Timmy Reed—a two-time third-place City Paper Fiction winner—offers witty-enough prose that's just placed on the wall like giant e-book pages. It doesn't even feel like it's all that interested in being there, so we're not all that interested in reviewing it.
Some of these women should've gotten the Baker Artist Award, they shouldn't be runners-up. It would also be preferable if no-stakes, heady conceptual dweebs Crothers and Dyer were gone altogether—or maybe the judges should have just given them the b-grant instead and suggested they pull their heads out of their asses and try again for the Baker next year. And it would be better if there wasn't a particular kind of artist of color who is awarded, but hey. This is an invigorating and infuriating exhibition.