Sara VanDerBeek pares down her memories of growing up in Baltimore using minimalist photography and sculpture

Sara VanDerBeek Baltimore Museum of Art review

Sara VanDerBeek's 'Steps' turns marble stoop slabs into a curious minimalist sculpture. Five rectangular marble bricks, the same height and width of individual stoop steps, are laid end to end on the floor of the Baltimore Museum of Art's contemporary galleries, where VanDerBeek's Front Room exhibition is installed. The marble blocks themselves are instantly familiar, but the piece feels oddly fidgety, as if quietly vacillating between the purely functional (is it OK to put my foot on it and tie my shoe?) and the visually meditative, existing someplace between a contractor's good, solid work and Anne Truitt's sculptural abstractions.

"Steps are this really interesting space of transformation and movement," VanDerBeek says during an interview at the BMA in early April. "And stoops are this interesting space of the domestic and the civic, both inside and outside—and they're everywhere. They're in all aspects of this city, and the material connects all of this city. Marble also connects to antiquity, and it's also an accretion of time, movement caught within the stone."

Chatting with VanDerBeek has this palimpsest-like quality, her sentences leading you through the many idea doors that inform and shape her work. Thoughts about Baltimore stoops lead to a discussion of minimalism, modernist poetry, the choreography, essays, and poems of dancer Yvonne Rainer, the BMA's Cone Collection, and working with film stock instead of digital media. VanDerBeek is an artist whose work rises out of her own feedback loop between photography and sculpture, and her Front Room exhibition includes a number of reconfigured, sculptural photographs she's taken around Baltimore from 2010 to 2014. In many ways, this show is a reconnection with the city she once called home.

She is the daughter of Stan VanDerBeek, the experimental filmmaker who emerged out of the 1950s Black Mountain College generation of minds whose experimentation seeped into their lives as well as their work; from 1975 through his 1984 death from cancer he was the chair of UMBC's Department of Visual Arts. Sara was born and raised in the Baltimore area—she grew up in Relay, near the UMBC campus, and lived in Mount Washington with an aunt while attending the Baltimore School for the Arts. She left to attend Cooper Union in 1994; this BMA exhibition is her first hometown show since.

"Even prior to knowing I was doing this [BMA] project, I've been returning to Baltimore and taking photographs," she says, adding that she and her brother, artist Johannes VanDerBeek, handle their father's estate. She started coming back to Baltimore more frequently when they needed to go through their father's basement archives at his former home. She points to an image in the BMA gallery, titled 'Movement of Memory,' which features two photographs of a marble surface cut and layered, creating this fractured sense of the same place.

"In 2010 we had to sell the house, and that was a physical demarcation of having a place here and no longer having a place, and this image was taken around that time," she says. "For me it's about the emotions and shifting sense of memory."

That's a calm observation about the powerful way memory can invade everyday waking life, and a good brain calibration for taking in VanDerBeek's work at the BMA. It's an incredibly subdued show at first blush. The predominant color experience is white, be that of the marble or the image of it in black-and-white photos. It's formally abstract, images of marble forms cut and spliced together into images that are quietly restless, the imperfect gray lines in marble not quite lining up between two images. But it's surprisingly not obdurate or cold; spend enough time with any single work and it becomes an invitation to locate its restless emotive potential. The whiteness becomes a screen onto which to project memory's experimental, multimedia experience.

This temporal density of image brought to mind an aspect of her father's work, one I didn't form until recently. From 2003 to 2009, VanDerBeek, her brother Johannes, and fellow artist Anya Kielar ran the Guild & Greyshkul gallery in SoHo, where they exhibited many of their younger artist peers. Going through the work their father left behind allowed them to stage a mammoth retrospective at the gallery in fall 2008, a show I was fortunate enough to catch. Being only familiar with the films, I found it to be a revelation, a trove of ideas in a variety of media as heady as they were visually striking.

"Something I really appreciate about experimental film and dad's work is the mixture of imagery and calling upon different types of imagery to convey a fractured narrative, which I think speaks to where we are right now, this very expansive fragmented sense of communication and the visual landscape we're in," VanDerBeek says. "Poetry's a lot about acute observation and interpreting the world around you and your experience. I think poetry connects to experimental and structuralist film, and I think a lot about my relationship to my father's work because most of my relationship to him is through his work."

Poetry, like music and film, has that ability to convey information and feelings in succinct parcels, with abrupt changes happening in the very next line. VanDerBeek is aiming for the same concision in her work. It's not merely an aesthetic choice, but a recognition of how we understand and relate to the world. In conversation she brings up Fred Wilson's landmark "Mining the Museum" exhibition, which was installed at the Maryland Historical Society when she was at the School for the Arts; Wilson came and spoke to the students. "Mining" remixed the museum's holdings to tell a different history of Maryland's colonialism and slavery, a reminder that the message conveyed, and stories we're told, are the results of choices made by the people doing the telling.

Memory, the story of self, is just as variegated and unstable. It sometimes feels like a weak radio signal going into and out of connection as you navigate the highways of everyday life, a pentimento of the ordinary. "I'm very interested the way that photography, film, and images influence our relationship to memory," VanDerBeek says. "And this connects to dad's exhibition—that multi-screen and multimedia work that he created is, to me, kind of a physical manifestation of the way we collect and organize memory via these layered, shifting collages of images. A very intimate, personal moment can be consistently flickering and shifting in your recollections and understanding of time, history, and life."

"Front Room: Sara VanDerBeek" is at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Sept. 20.

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