The first thing you encounter in the School 33 Art Center Studio Artist Biennial is a giant, glittery skeleton of a fictional prehistoric beast. It's what the set piece for the climactic "Jurassic Park" atrium scene might've looked like had it been filmed in the nearby American Visionary Art Museum.
The piece—Jonathan Latiano's 'Make it Beautiful, Make it Horrible'—is composed of driftwood, rebar, and polystyrene foam gilded with auto paint. And it's the most glaring indicator of the biennial's tone: process-intensive studio practices with a rare sense of wonder. From nods to natural history to man-made spectacle, there's a sense of curiosity or awe that characterizes the work of most of the nine artists-in-residence at School 33. This year's exhibition, curated by Sarah Doherty, is arguably the most cohesive I've seen in the series.
Chip Irvine's macro photographic prints enlarge tiny outdoor specimens to 4-foot-tall windows onto alien landscapes. They look great with Latiano's work. In 'Presence,' an object that might be a damp leaf or greasy Dorito disrupts the coagulating surface film of what looks like an oil slick on thin, fresh-looking ice. It's hard to resist the impulse to reach out and poke the image—every texture looks like it would ripple or crunch with satisfying drama.
In 'Vision,' a tiny oil painting by Dan Perkins, a finely rendered interior that's somewhere between Japanese sukiya-zukuri and European Renaissance frames a sublime landscape. It's unclear if the focal point—a rectangular view of a mountain that looks like the Paramount logo—is a highly detailed painting suspended in front of a distant, slightly-out-of-focus landscape or a window to a vivid vista on a wall of muted, painterly wallpaper designed to almost match the view. The effect functions either way, and that's part of the appeal. That attention to detail is even more evident in ' Hut Wall', a trompe-l'œil painting depicting a photo of a Pre-Columbian pyramid pinned to wood paneling. The series, which comprises five canvases, constitutes a sort of wunderkammer, collecting snippets of notable natural and built environments from around the world in oil.
In the same gallery, Elana Webb's 'Palm Jumeirah' recreates the man-made Dubai island in resin poured into gouged foam. It's laid out like a ceremonial buffet with casts of fruit, giving the arrangement an aura of sickly sweet decadence like the smell of an overripe banana. The resin almost even looks like that raspberry jam in the center of thumbprint cookies. The table is flanked by ceiling-height translucent tarps that have been sparsely painted with surrealist allusions to construction tools, the beach, and abstract shapes that could read as either sensual or threatening. Overall, the installation is strangely seductive and not quite right at the same time—a fitting wake for a controversial, flashy, sinking engineering folly in an emirate known for conspicuous consumption and grave human rights abuses (especially in the construction industry). A lot has been said about Dubai's contradictions and artifice in the contemporary art world, but I'm not sure anyone has ever said it as weirdly as this piece.
The built environment also inspired Ruri Yi's 'Language of Nature', a wall full of 12-by-12-inch acrylic-on-panel abstractions that collectively strive to locate a pattern or cadence to the city. Individually, each panel reads like a piece of minimalist, beige graphic design. As a whole, the collection has a presence greater than the sum of its parts—the wall evokes the rhythm of a modernist highrise's facade interrupted by stray satellite dishes or towels dangling from balconies. It's just as easy to conceptualize the irregular motif as a bird's-eye view of Baltimore's vacant-lot-pockmarked grid. In either scenario, the designed urban space is mutated by the unpredictable actions of the users who inherit it, transforming arbitrary geometry into something organic and mutable.
That piece has a nice formal dialogue with Atsuko Chirikjian's practice, which reconsiders the woven pattern of canvas as a composition unto itself. The first time I saw her work, several years ago, I mistook it for a drawing from across the room. In reality, Chirikjian constructs surfaces out of negative space, weaving a variety of organic matter from rope to paper between stretcher bars. These build up over successive layers to create a lacy matrix of lines that might be what an unprimed canvas looks like under a high-powered microscope. They're delicate and rough at the same time—incredibly crafted without feeling overly "craftlike." In a strange, satisfying way, they feel pragmatic.
Michelle Dickson also arrives at a destination that's close to formal abstraction through an accumulation of materials and processes. She combines layers upon layers of collage, screen-printed images, and light graphite drawings until any content is almost totally lost as a component in a muted composition. In 'Untitled Mnemonic #1,' fragments of a brick wall seem to float in a nebula that can no longer describe a specific, logical place. In others, hints of classical sculpture frustratingly suggest something that has disappeared. The compositions are formally nice—there's an association with polite wallpaper or decor that's inescapable—but the cognitive urge to assemble coherent images or narrative prevents the viewer from a wholly aesthetic experience. I found them oddly disquieting as I fought my instinct for translation.
But the only body of work in the gallery that I first approached with apprehension was Tiffany Jones's 'Beyond the Bench' photographs. As the title suggests, the series is inspired in part by Baltimore's unfortunate "Greatest City in America" benches that have become the staple of recent transplants' ironic Instagrams and many an out-of-state MICA student's Intro to Photo project. And here, the inclination toward ruin porn is in full effect. Which isn't to say ruin porn isn't beautiful: Buffed graffiti on boarded-up bodegas and derelict toys on sidewalks are photogenic, but I can't help but feel like I've seen images like these before and felt they were exploitative every time. There are no people in any of the photographs, but any guilty-pleasure appreciation of their aesthetic values as "ghost town" is preemptively cut off by an accompanying very loud audio track of West Baltimore residents' voices. Their statements, however, have been edited together into an incomprehensible cacophony where brief snippets of words such as "racism," "faith," and "community" occasionally bubble to the surface. At one point, a man expresses frustration that no one listens to people like him, but the rest of his thought is edited to again be drowned out by the others. At first I dismissed this reduction of individual voices to an ambient sea of discontent as "ruin porn for the ears."
Then again, 'Beyond the Bench' effectively conjures that similar feeling of anxiety one might've experienced desperately scrolling through the op-ed-dominated news or Twitter this year—an endless stream of calculated images, bitter or heartbroken ranting, and barely-legible commentary truncated and abbreviated to fit 140 characters or less. Perhaps there just isn't a way to document the frustrating injustices of poverty or disenfranchisement that feels productive or empowering. It's natural for artists in Baltimore to feel compelled to react to the city's problems—but that response is often a regurgitation of helplessness in the face of monolithic structural inequality. And maybe artists are entitled to that sometimes. Perhaps the overwhelming bleakness and seemingly fruitless entropy of the city's representation and discourse is the intended target here.
In an exhibition full of (sometimes literally) loud artwork, a gilded dinosaur, floor-to-ceiling paintings on plastic tarps, and wall-spanning grids, I almost missed Olivia Robinson's work. Her sole piece 'Horde' manages to be the quietest work despite being studded with lit LEDs. It's a relatively small dark blue/gray quilt that depicts a night sky. In the one cloud that hangs at the bottom of the composition, faint figures that look like they were lightly burned into the white fabric are jumbled together in an orgy of bald, androgynous bodies. I'm totally unsure what to make of this. It's impeccably crafted with the oddest combination of light-up components and quilting: two features that always run the risk of coming across as kitsch. Here, though, they kind of work. The wonder never ceases.
School 33's Studio Artist Biennial runs through Aug. 22. For more information visit school33.orghttp://school33.org.