Conflicts of Interest: Casting shadows in a cave

City Paper

Beats skittered off the black, cave-like walls. Josephine Olivia, with black leather shorts and impossibly blond hair, dances a quietly ecstatic and somehow almost absent dance in the dark 14Karat Cabaret in the basement of Maryland Art Place’s Saratoga Street headquarters. A dozen or so people in togas or togalike dresses sit at the tables a dozen feet back from the stage. It feels like something out of a David Lynch movie—if he had been more influenced by Warhol. But the distance between the performers and the audience seemed profound, unbreakable, and dimensional. It was the afterparty for MAP’s Saratoga Toga Party.

In the fall, there are so many plays to see and review that it has been hard for me to make it to many art openings, so I was excited to have some time this weekend to go to the various openings in the Bromo Tower Arts District, which is really the center of the city’s visual arts scene, despite the greater profile of Station North.

Kyle Hackett’s show at the DCAS (Downtown Cultural Arts Center) is one of the best shows I’d seen all year—but it was a one-day show, open only on Friday. In a series of small paintings on metal, Hackett took the cubist approach of turning the portrait into a still life or the still life into a portrait and created faces that also appear as crumpled paper, adding a Baconian anguish to the cubist angles. Other paintings, large blue-toned gray high-gloss paintings of African-American men, play on the tradition of Renaissance portraiture with humor and real painterly grace, while adding newer, clever, moving touches, as in ‘After Brown’ where the figure stands with palm out—the illusion of the painting is broken as the palm seems pressed, life-size, against the canvas as a palm print. 

Compared to Hackett’s serious attempts to grapple with the tradition of painting and race in America, the photographs of witty questions and slogans on the wall of Freddy, for instance, seem empty and flat—a single joke retold by an emotionless sociopath again and again. And next door, at Open Space (featuring erstwhile CP designer Jasmine Sarp), which has finally re-opened where Rock512Devil used to be after the fire that drove Open Space out of its Remington home, it was virtually impossible to see the work because the room was so crowded with celebrants and well-wishers standing around the walls and talking, looking away from the work and toward the center of the room. 

After stopping by Current Space, I made it here to MAP, where a large number of the works played on Greco-Roman themes, something that always delights me, a former classics scholar. I was happy to see one of (former CP contributor) Cara Ober’s cut-outs of a vase painting—I’ve wanted to buy one of those for a long time. I felt bad about insulting her in last week’s column, saying that the mayor did a mediocre interview with her and that playing by the rules pays off. Her criticism really isn’t mediocre at all—I wanted to say that the mayor was playing it safe. As it turned out, the mayor did say some interesting things, including that if she were “reincarnated from another time it would be” the Harlem Renaissance. That’s fucking cool, if not quite as cool as Frank Conaway Jr.’s recent speculations.  (I should also say that I loved the freaked-out way $RB looked back at the far out trumpet solo by Brandon “Big-B” Woody in the cover of ‘Royals’ she had to do for losing a baseball bet with the Kansas City mayor—way to go Brandon.) So, I said it on the phone, but I’ll also write it: Sorry, Cara.

Back at MAP, Chris Owen showed me a series of pictures on his phone of people molesting his work of art in the show—it features a fleshy dildo and people were acting as if to suck it and jacking it. 

He didn’t seem happy about it. Or about its placement in the back. I saw how MAP might not want it in the window, but I also saw the serious intent of the piece, called ‘Herma.’ In ancient Athens, statues of Hermes with erect phalluses stood as mile markers. During the Peloponnesian War, the phalluses were smashed off all the Hermes statues (possibly by a drinking club called the Kakodaimonioi, or Hells Angels). Alcibiades, the general leading the Sicilian expedition, was blamed and recalled after the ships had sailed. He was sentenced for the crime, but  did not return. Athens faced disaster. 

Owen did his research. But it seems people saw his work as protest or joke. And I know he can take a joke. For full disclosure, I should recall that he was once a guest on my band’s Barnyard Sharks Variety Show where I mockingly mistook him for Michael Owen and made fun of his murals and Aaron Henkin called him Owen Wilson and asked about his movie career. But something about ‘Herma’ actually struck me as serious and meaningful, calling to mind our own failed military expeditions and social unrest. It possessed the serious and profane in the way that Athenian comedy or Roman poetry did.

The response of some in the crowd was disappointing, but Amy Cavanaugh Royce, of MAP, put on a great show—both in terms of the art and the after party. Sitting down here watching Blacksage, as Laure Drogoul stood by the bar with flashing lights in her hair, I could see how important 14Karat Cabaret and MAP could be to this district if they were able to get a liquor license, how Bromo needs somewhere that people can go, nearby, after the openings for a couple beers and some music. When the band finished, Blacksage beatmaker Drew Scott and I chatted through a beer about my experiment of listening only to Baltimore music. This is the point of the experiment. I have been digging Blacksage and, on a random night out, I ended up in a room that was a cross between Warhol’s Factory and some weird German cabaret where I was able to see them perform. 


If you’re making music or visual art, I’m eager to know what you’re up to. Send me a link at bwoods@citypaper.com.

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