The exhibition of this year's Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists smells like the jury-Caroline Busta, Jenny Schlenzka, and Beverly Semmes-was desperate to be "relevant." Four of the six artists on display at the Walters Art Museum (the temporary home of the Sondheim finalists while the BMA undergoes renovations) through Aug. 11 are documentary photographers or photographer/filmmakers, and all of their works deal with social or political themes. One of the two installations serves as a critique of gender roles in art.
All of which is fine; juries should strive to make their shows relevant. But often they try too hard, and the result is akin to the old guy at the party trying to talk all groovy like the cool cats. In this case, the misguided earnestness is most evident in the arrangement of the show as a whole, in which the cumulative effects of all the works together subtracts from, rather than adds to, the power of each artist's contributions.
Larry Cook's photographs of a Blood, a Klansman, and a Crip would have been far more powerful if they had not come straight after Gabriela Bulisova's film stills of a woman re-entering society after spending half her life incarcerated. Immediately on the heels of Cook's work, then, we get Nate Larson's photographs tracing the flight of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln. By the time we get to Louie Palu's images of the drug war in Mexico, we are already a little burnt out, a little less able to delineate the differences between the artists. Another unfortunate result is that the final two artists feel like afterthoughts in what seems to be an essentially documentary and political show.
It's also curious that the Sondheim is still billed on the Artscape website as "Baltimore's most prestigious artist award" when half the artists have closer ties to Washington, D.C., than to Baltimore. (More than half, if we consider that Larson, a professor at MICA, centers his work around D.C. and its suburbs.) Baltimore has a strong-enough arts scene now that we don't have to fill up our prize exhibitions with D.C. artists. One further expects that a Baltimore artist could make better use of the $25,000 prize (down from $30,000 last year), since NEA just published "National Statistics about Working Artists," which reports that the average D.C. artist makes $125,000 a year! (To be fair, it also includes architects and, you know, since beers are like $7 in D.C., you'd need a lot more money in order to be an artist.)
Gabriela Bulisova's short documentary film Time Zone opens with an image of Lashawna Etheridge-Bey doing hand-clap pushups, wearing a pink do-rag. Etheridge-Bey was convicted of a double homicide, spent half her life in prison (and separated from her two children), became a Muslim, reformed herself, and was released. The story is a powerful look at the aftermath of crime and punishment: Etheridge-Bey is now leading an exemplary life, but neither she nor her children have been able to move entirely past her earlier life. The scenes where her children express their anger at their mother are moving and tragic. The piece-and the entirely superfluous stills from the film that fill the walls of one of the gallery rooms-raises a lot of questions about what "fine art" might be. Time Zone seems more suited to a movie theater, television, or computer screen than a museum. This imperfect fit is heightened by the weird acoustics in the Walters gallery, which make it impossible to hear the film if a guard or another patron is talking anywhere nearby.
Larry Cook's submission investigates representation and identity in African-American culture. "All American," the previously mentioned portraits of a Blood and a Crip flanking a Klansman, really does have a visceral kick that, beautifully, raises more questions than it answers. Likewise, "Picture Me Rollin'" is an arresting multimedia piece that mixes a video of a fancy car with open gull-wing doors doing donuts while a group of T-shirted African-Americans cheer in the background to a remix of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. There is a powerful critique in the juxtaposition, and one can't be entirely certain if it is a criticism of King's dream or of hip-hop culture for failing to fulfill it, and that tension gives these images their power. A video piece beside it shows King on a talk show, fidgeting as he listens to someone speak. All context is gone, the piece focusing solely on the motion of his eyes. Cook takes a similar strategy with "Deandre, Aujena, Douglas, Henry," a two-channel video which focuses for an uncomfortably long period on the faces of the titular characters. The ambiguity of Cook's images and their formal audacity make them among the strongest works in the show.
Nate Larson's photos of Washington, D.C., suburban Maryland, and the Potomac make up a nice photo essay that would not be out of place in a magazine like the Oxford American. The photos, of nondescript places, actually follow the footsteps of John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln, pegged to exact locations with entries from Booth's diary. Without the context, the images are just pretty-good photographs of suburban landscapes. The context is presumably supposed to give the images a greater power-and it does, to some extent. But following in the wake of Manhunt, James L. Swanson's 2006 book about Booth's flight from justice, it feels a little late and lackluster.
I usually recommend that people get stoned before they go to art shows (except for reviewers)-but unless you are very certain where your weed comes from, you will not want to be high when you see Louie Palu's "Mira Mexico." When you see the grim portrait of a man bound and executed in Sinaloa, home of many cartels, you will pray that your habits of consumption played no part in it. Palu's work is photojournalism of the most serious sort-death, crime, war-but he does not rely on the shock factor of gruesomeness or the weight of international affairs. Images like "Angels," a 2011 photo of "girls dressed as angels" praying "at a crime scene where a young man was assassinated" are stunning and surreally elegant regardless of their context. It is a shame that Palu's work comes after an overload of far-weaker documentary images. But he pushes the work beyond the context of the show itself and brings it outside: In addition to the prints on the wall, Palu has them arranged on newsprint, folded on a newsstand for viewers to take home and display elsewhere in other arrangements and other contexts. The fact that the images are printed on the front and back so that you can only display eight of the 16 at any one time forces the viewer to curate the newsprint version of "Mexico Mira." It is a powerful concept that forces the viewer to engage with the work directly.
One wishes that an artist as evidently intelligent as Caitlin Cunningham would quit making work that is just as well summarized as experienced. Like certain Lydia David stories, the titles of many of Cunningham's works are as illustrative as the works to which they are affixed. This strategy pays off brilliantly with her Walters name placard, which includes a mysteriously redacted page of a book titled The Artist as the Man Next Door in lieu of a bio, but otherwise leaves the viewer longing for more than a lecture. Most of Cunningham's recent work is a critique of misogyny in art history, and her gorgeous, clever, and formally fascinating "Jack/son Torrance"-which uses chlorophyl and plastic to turn a wall of the museum into a mashup of The Shining and the work of Jackson Pollock-shows that she is capable of transforming her intellectual critique, certainly justified, into a visually and experientially compelling work. It is worth coming to the Walters just to see "Jack/son Torrance," which is one of the most interesting pieces in the whole show, but the success of this piece highlights the weakness of her other entries.
Dan Steinhilber makes unabashedly fun work. Of his 2006 installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art, City Paper said: "Steinhilber has transformed a white-walled box into a churning sea of quotidian debris, but only a foolish kill-joy would set eyes on it and not come away with some mirthful wonder at its undaunted moments of incipient beauty." Likewise, it is easy to find mirthful wonder in "Marlin Underground," his Sondheim entry, which turns a gallery of the Walters into a cluttered, creaking old basement and a musical instrument simultaneously. Taking found objects-including some from the Walters itself-Steinhilber "interviewed" them by recording the sounds they make: a ball bouncing on the short ping-pong table collecting dust at one end of the room; something tapping against the metal of a filing cabinet; cans of PBR settling in a trashcan. Steinhilber runs speakers from a laptop at one end of the gallery to the objects so that each can project and even amplify its own sound. Amidst what feels like detritus, there is something unsettling about the shiny new Mac spouting wires: This is no ordinary basement but a mad scientist's creepy project. On the one hand, the sounds mimic the ways that basements can sound in the middle of the night. On the other hand, all the sounds come together to create an intense musical composition that changes depending on where in the room the listener is. It is the kind of work in which one could bask for hours-though one of the museum guards did admit that it was starting to drive him a bit crazy.
The winner of the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize will be announced July 13 at the walters Art museum, where the work of the finalists will be on display through Aug. 11. for more information, visit artscape.org.