The Sondheim finalists, reviewed—and inching toward an art practice based in resistance
by Rebekah Kirkman
In a drawing from his "Trump Regime Studies," artist William Powhida depicts a caricature-ish Steve Bannon (labeled as a "minister of nihilism" and also a "fucking sot"), Kellyanne Conway (the "minister of lies" and "Skelator"), Mike Pence (the "vice-chancellor" and "Walter White," a comparison that's far too benevolent in my opinion), and others including of course "the Chancellor," the Donald himself ("He IS capitalism"). The piece accompanies a short essay written by the artist for Hyperallergic, in which he notes that this drawing was sold for a couple thousand dollars to benefit a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that helps "emerging, under-recognized mid-career and women artists" in various ways, which Powhida says "feels like a small gesture."
Elsewhere in the essay, Powhida admits, "...I keep coming back to the contradictions inherent in art, such as its status as private property bought and sold in markets—including benefit auctions. The problems of ownership and the extreme disparity between profits from labor and returns on capital have contributed to the social conditions leading to Trump's election." Powhida's writing here focuses on artists in general, most of whom grow to accept that they are beholden to this hustle if they want to put their work into the world.
I keep coming back to those contradictions too—both as a person who makes art and as one who writes about it. There is a Trump-shaped penumbra shrouding my critical writing abilities that sees the whole entire "art world" as something exploitative and unequal in which I sometimes don't want to participate by even writing about it, or at least not in a bland and uncritical and altogether cheerleader-y "review." There is a Trump-shaped ennui that (along with other factors, such as time) winds up halting me from making art at worst or lulls me into a complacency that keeps me from changing course with my own work.
I know I am not alone in this.
I have already intimated elsewhere in City Paper that it's a bit reckless to blame this all, this pervasive grief that I am trusting y'all readers are feeling with us collectively, on Trump, but it's even more foolish to pretend as if things haven't gotten markedly worse and scarier.
OK, got it, but how do we deal with it?
The complexities of the art market are not so prevalent in Baltimore as they are in New York and other cities that have been marketed as destinations or centers for art. But maybe we're getting there: In Baltimore, while there is much support for art and artists, organizations also use art as a tool for real estate speculation and development. We don't have a huge collector base here, though we do have a few commercial galleries with some big holdings that sell and travel to some of the major art fairs. Most visual artists in Baltimore can make their work in studio spaces that are relatively cheap. And some show their work in artist-run galleries and occasional college/university gallery shows and, even more rarely, in those aforementioned commercial galleries. Some travel elsewhere to show and sell their work, or eventually move away entirely. And we do have a lot of funding for the arts, with the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize (put on by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which I'll get to soon, stay with me, please), the Baker Artist Awards, the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance's Rubys Artist Projects Grants, The Contemporary's Grit Fund, and more, plus awards from the state, like the Maryland State Arts Council awards. These awards typically go to emerging or somewhat established adult individuals (and sometimes collectives), and are funded year after year by various local and national foundations, benefactors, and supporters of the arts.
Three of this year's seven Sondheim finalists have been finalists in previous years, too: two in 2015, and one in 2014—which was also the year I started contributing to City Paper's annual coverage of the finalist exhibition. It's an odd feeling of déjà vu, but it's not terribly surprising that the tastes and interests of out-of-town jurors—particularly if they are more often than not based in New York, themselves working within a highly competitive environment—might overlap. Usually established artists, critics, and curators, the jurors are different each year, and they do often hail from New York (some occasionally have a Baltimore/Maryland connection); this year all three are based in New York. The Sondheim prize is only open to applicants in Maryland, Washington D.C., and certain counties and cities of Virginia and Pennsylvania. BOPA estimates that since around the award's second year, no fewer than 300, and sometimes more than 400 artists have applied. So far, eight of 11 winners since the prize's inaugural year have been based in Baltimore City. Most of the winners have been white artists. A host of societal issues and factors keep the art world overwhelmingly white.
I'm sure it feels great to be chosen as a Sondheim finalist. I'm sure being a semifinalist feels pretty good too—something for the resume and a chance to show your work in public. (The semifinalists exhibition, by the way, is up at MICA from July 21-Aug. 6.) Hell, I bet even just getting through the submission process alone is something you'd want to toast to. I'm not knocking anyone for doing the work, not saying we should get rid of the award. But back to ol' Trump. In light of everything now, I want to imagine an art world that's less of a capitalist nightmare and less of a hustle, that's less dependent on an expensive and privileged art education (disclosure: I am the recipient of one of those, as well as a lot of debt). There has always been so much rhetoric that artists are progressive, that they're on the vanguard, but of what, and how, and who says?
I am wondering what an art practice based in resistance (as opposed to the shit that got us to where we are now—capitalism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, holy god, everything) would look like, and since we do need money to do things in this world, how that type of practice might be funded. Maybe it would involve fewer art-objects-as-commodities, maybe everything would be more local and more affordable. Maybe there would be more recognition of the arts and humanities' value in society and thus more funding for it across the board (a preemptive RIP to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, whose deaths seem imminent under Trump). More quality arts education in schools taught by better-paid artists, who don't have to work three jobs in order to maintain a studio practice that often keeps them holed up alone. And I know y'all have better and more creative ideas than that.
When FORCE won the Sondheim last year, it was inspiring to me that an artist/activist group whose work aims to right a vast, seemingly insurmountable wrong in our society (rape culture and stigma surrounding abuse), to try to help shift the paradigm and support survivors, would be financially rewarded for work whose effects are tangible. Maybe the person who wins this year's Sondheim is several steps ahead of me and will have big, posi plans for that money. Maybe they won't; I don't know. It isn't up to me. I'm just a critic, spitballin' because I care about this shit, and I love art sometimes but mostly I love it when it hits me in the gut somehow, and when I can see it affecting other people in that way.
The winner of the 2017 Sondheim prize will be announced at 7 p.m. on July 15 at the Walters Art Museum. Jurors Ruba Katrib, Clifford Owens, and Nat Trotman selected this year's finalists—Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Anne Arntzen, Cindy Cheng, Sara Dittrich, Benjamin Kelley, Kyle Tata, Amy Yee—who are all currently based in Baltimore. Trying to predict a winner for these awards has never seemed useful or wise to me. Nor does slapping a haphazard organizing principle onto this particular juried show, though last year (a year out from the Baltimore Uprising) the finalists' work was more overtly political, more in topic than in practice, than it had been in recent memory. This year, the work is markedly less so, and generally less moving, with a few exceptions. As a whole, it falls short of the idea that the Sondheim, one of the biggest local art awards, represents what it means or what it could mean to make art right now.
Mequitta Ahuja's paintings generously explore the self—the artist's self but also, in a meta way, a painting's self, commenting on its own history, within a history. Seven large-scale paintings (the smallest is not quite a square, its shortest dimension almost 5 feet; the largest is also not quite a square, its shortest dimension almost 7 feet) work in a way that's somewhat reminiscent of Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall's paintings.
Ahuja seems to be working toward something similar as Marshall, in terms of addressing "the canon" of Western art history. Not seeing herself, a woman of color, painted by a woman like herself represented in most art history books, Ahuja carves out her own space. Stylistically, these paintings are similar to the ones she showed as a Sondheim finalist in 2015, in which she drew upon her African and South Asian ethnicity and the globalization of art and culture.
Here, Ahuja again employs a bold palette, with methodical, thick straps of oil paint over a coarse canvas surface—imagine loads of paint slathered over a rug, which I dunno why you'd ever do that, but Ahuja makes it look so satisfying—to construct paintings within paintings. 'Renaissance Woman' depicts a painting of the artist in a modest white slip sitting in a typical portrait pose from that time period. She holds a delicate chain from which dangles a prism, projecting rainbow light all around it. The wall label (each painting is accompanied by a short explanatory label; Ahuja seems to want to ensure her intentions are crystal clear) references Isaac Newton and that this woman is like a "lost, covered-up and recalled black character." Ahuja nods to the ways that, by and large, the scientific innovations of black and brown people are erased by a white and Eurocentric narrative of discovery and genius.
The paintings often reference each other, borrowing each other's compositions. In 'Sales Slip,' a figure (presumably the artist again) lifts up a red cloth to reveal this painting within a painting, and lets the painting lean against her body. Her arm hangs over the edge holding what, judging by the title, is safe to assume is a sales slip, partially concealing the face of the painted woman, as if taunting or shrouding; it's unclear. The painting within this painting looks like its neighbor 'Renaissance Woman' but perhaps an earlier or unfinished version, as if to hint at but not overstate money's effect on art, how it changes, directs, impedes, and motivates work all at once.
Erasure, mystery, and untold or unknowable histories are a few of the sturdy threads that Ahuja weaves, and nowhere is that more apparent than 'Border Distilled,' an abridged version of its neighbor 'Border'—here, the environment of the latter becomes simple geometry, hard edges and an arch, and all that remains of the latter's seated woman are her two bare brown feet.
Another reading of Ahuja's work might find frustration in her search for inclusion into a history she has largely been excluded from. But through these paintings, as she invites you into her studio, her painting's space, and the realities directly around and inside of it, Ahuja evolves with this history, reckoning with it, breaking down from the inside that elusive, arbitrary position of "genius."
Mary Anne Arntzen
A pie of variegated blue and white and purplish triangles sits in the center of a large, shiny, black square void in Mary Anne Arntzen's 'Spider Moon,' one of 14 paintings on view. Five or six bright red, yellow, and blue-black thin, nervous lines separate some of the triangles from each other; a blurry yellow and reddish halo quivers into the surrounding darkness.
'Spider Moon's' smaller sibling, 'Aperture,' hangs across the space among a row of paintings that are all 14 inches square. Though 'Spider Moon' feels more person-sized and thus easier to beckon the viewer to come get lost inside of it, 'Aperture' is the more successful painting. The unelaborate hesitance of Arntzen's mark works better on a smaller scale; it feels quick and uninhibited rather than belabored and beleaguered as some of her larger paintings do.
Fence-like, ribbony shapes and interlocking, overlapping noodles and chutes abound in Arntzen's compositions, which are at times uneven. The color palettes are occasionally drab—a mustard yellow angular boomerang shape overlaps a similar grass-green shape, among green stripes on a fiery red background and a from-the-tube yellow in 'Boomerang.' In her statement, the artist intellectualizes a fairly rote, by-the-book painter's process within her paintings ("every mark is placed in response to the one before" and culminates in a space that's "ambiguous" and hops between "abstract form and illusionism") while also referencing freehand geometry and quilt squares.
Some sickly color relationships distract from more interesting and sturdy compositions and shapes, like in 'Poor Men Want to Be Rich, Rich Men Want to Be King' whose dynamic, balled-up brush strokes, bound by a spiral and a fury of thin stripes are beset by harsh yellows and sad beiges and a chalky orange, a dash of green and a couple purple triangles. Others work quite well, like how 'Ritual Magic's' overall harmonious but hot shades of red and violet wind around each other and make me think of a heating element. But it looks more like a screen, a sort-of-window or frame structure, whose view is obstructed by a continuous line that wraps tightly around it. Arntzen's openness to her process, content, and where a mark and a movement will lead her results in an arrangement of work that feels chaotic but constrained.
There is no other finalist this year who offers more visual rewards in their work than Cindy Cheng. Here, I'll list some notes I took while tiptoeing around the artist's visual jungle gyms: hamster tubes; special rocks; a carpeted, glitched-out table; koi pond accoutrements; clay donuts; a big bone/a little bone; ping pong ball; kinda like a toe separator but for some creature with like 20 toes at least; tiny blue dot (hello, wink, Carl Sagan?); things that recall marbles and mancala and Cracker Barrel games.
Though each of the three expansive sculptural pieces is overwhelming in its own way with so many tiny components and Easter eggs, a variety of handmade ceramic and wooden portions and structures along with found/readymade objects and possibly discarded materials, you should try to get up close to her drawings that are framed and hung on the walls too. The five drawings, from a series called 'Souvenir Room,' are delicate graphite and charcoal renderings of spaces with collaged elements. Some of them feel like galleries, which makes their titles all the more amusing—'Souvenir Room #9' features a bewildering play of light and shadow across a high-ceilinged space in which multi-leveled and occasionally translucent plinths display blobby masses; a "Snake" (the game I played on my sister's Nokia cellphone in the early 2000s)-shaped window in the space is what's letting all that light in, I think, and outside something's oozing down whatever building we're inside of.
The titles of the sculptures provide tangential hints to the visual poetry she offers: 'Untitled (Straight and Narrow)' guides your eye toward the four distinct upright sections of the piece and the oblique and oblong objects within them, while the title 'Signal/Lookout' makes me see the objects on this semi-collapsed, carpeted table as alien aquatic elements and strange swimming pools.
Or that's how I'm seeing it. Cheng really has you frowning and incredulous throughout; there's so much room for narratives and associative logic it can be maddening—in a pleasant way—if you're the type of person who feels like they need to understand every damn detail. Though she gives you so much to pore over, she still builds up a boundary of formalism so that you may never know the exact referent for that ceramic thing that looks like a giant stick of incense, for the vaguely topographic map made of foam, for the egg crate foam, for the ceramic cone atop what looks like a bed of mangrove roots.
Wherever you're standing while looking at the Sondheim finalist exhibition, you might be startled by an unpredictable, strange drum rhythm. It stops for long, intermittent pauses, and then starts again, a pitter-pattering. That's coming from Sara Dittrich's 'Going/Staying (Walters Art Museum),' a kick drum outfitted with "various electrical components" that create a rhythm corresponding to the artist's footsteps (and stops) as she walked through the museum. The piece builds more anxiety on top of my already anxious homeostasis, which I weirdly enjoy—keeping my toes on their toes, as it were—a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. It's unclear why the steps were recorded at the Walters; it could have easily been anywhere else, and maybe that's where we're supposed to take it next, finding a way "into" all of the spaces we navigate, and what effects that attention brings.
Dittrich's other works on display here mirror that presence and absence and awkwardness in the body. In the middle of her portion of the gallery, large, white, goofy-looking (but also Goofy-looking) celluclay-sculpted hands and feet sit on low plinths, the tools of a performance that is documented by way of 20 photographs, hung in a neat row on the wall to the left. In this series, titled 'Arrhythmia of the Body,' the artist swishes and sways and flails her arms and lunges left and right in her cumbersome hands and feet. Most often whatever is in motion is blurry.
Across from those photos is 'Variations on Listening #5,' a large square white canvas painted the same shade and slightly dimpled texture as the wall it hangs on. On the canvas, rows of tiny white polymer clay ears form a nearly perfect ring with a hole in the middle. We can intuitively understand the circle/ring as something that finds focus (like a lens), that locates a center, that places us right here, right now. Here, "listening" is looking too; our senses blur into one another just as the textures of the piece start to blend into the wall behind it. And then the kick drum steps start up again, jolting us back out.
Benjamin Kelley's display contains a stark three pieces that ruminate on time, discovery, futility, the body, and labor, and pretty much any other relative offshoot of those notions you might think of if you sit with them and let yourself wonder.
Though still somewhat murky, Kelley's explorations of objects and their preservation offer a clearer narrative possibility than the works he presented as a Sondheim finalist in 2015, which were intriguing but frustratingly obtuse. Here, in his piece 'Residual Evolutions,' a long, clear acrylic tube mounted to the wall contains a skillfully carved wooden skeleton of a right hand (plus part of the radius and ulna), a thin, long, flaky/corroded, tapering Tower of Babel-like structure, and the right-hand glove of astronaut Bonnie Dunbar's space suit. Kelley's statement notes that this suit was worn in the 1995 STS-71 Atlantis mission, which was the first space shuttle mission to dock with Mir, the Russian Space Station.
Cut into the gallery wall nearby is the piece 'Antlophobic Hymn,' a small display whose design looks straight out of "Star Trek," featuring two bolted portholes, one holding a temperature and humidity logger (such as you might find on the walls around any museum) that glows blue, the other with a pocket-sized journal with a series of dates and "weather conditions and temperatures" from 1843-'44 which Kelley says belonged to an unknown author from an unknown location. Antlophobia, by the way, is a fear of floods; in his statement Kelley alludes to the front page in this journal, in which the author wrote about a flood that destroyed their town and swept away a bridge, a mill, houses, and other structures. It is an abstracted exercise in empathy—since the author and place are unknown, this recording of data has become utterly useless to us today. Except for the dates and times, the handwriting is truly hard to read; it's unclear what the author was actually trying to keep track of, and all I can extract from it now is a neurotic dedication.
Finally, hanging high across from the long tube piece is 'The Healer,' the dark blue lab coat belonging to the Walters' conservator Pamela Betts. Kelley's statement points to specific moments in time about different components in each of these works all to say ultimately that here, "within the confines of the museum, the objects become relics." That's all, and we're left to ponder who decides what objects are worth preserving, and who's doing the work to preserve them, and what is left or written out.
To my own horror, I find myself drawn to an image with a red, white, and blue color scheme first. It's titled '52001633_8_Bank of America.' But maybe it's less the colors and more the off-kilter zig-zag through which the colors shine; the rest of the composition is black. Oh, and there's the enticing mystery of the image itself—long, slightly wavy hair, maybe the hint of the person's face before the rest of it is obscured into darkness. The person is not the point.
Each of Kyle Tata's pieces employ certain tactics of advertising—a face, a hand grazing a surface, stand-ins for some kind of desire—layered and disrupted by the zig-zagging, blocked and dotted patterns found inside of security tint envelopes. There are a couple other Bank of America-related prints using those colors, as well as M&T Bank (whose charity foundation, incidentally, sponsors the $2,500 honorarium each of the non-winning finalists receive) and PNC.
With its focus on the banks' branding, pattern repetition and obfuscation, and people whose identities remain untouchable and nonspecific, this body of work is more cohesive than what Tata showed as a 2014 Sondheim finalist. Though it's still so formalist it almost hurts, he more or less owns up to that in his short statement while also alluding to a vague, underlying vein of consumerism and data and what those things might mean for us. The C-prints are beautiful in composition and color, and Tata transforms something as banal as a teller's metal coin tray into a playful exercise emulating maybe some elements of a Barbara Kasten piece and a Mies van der Rohe building.
Perhaps purposefully, I keep getting stuck on the surface here: the hot/cool glowing and colorful light, the sharp contrast, the magentas, the geometries, the wiggly shadows, and the security envelope patterns (that also resemble bus seat patterns to me). But the import of Tata's subject matter stays muddled, and I want it to say more.
On one of my visits to the Walters to see the Sondheim show, as I was looking at one of Amy Yee's other works on display, a woman walked through and apparently touched one of the tissues that peek out of 72 "off-brand Kleenex" boxes within the piece 'The Field (Expanded).' The square boxes—printed with what looks like a stock photo of tall grass, with a very subtle Giant logo in the corner—are set onto six simple, staggered wooden risers, like a choir. I had my back turned but I overheard the museum guard awkwardly telling the woman, "Yeah, everything in this space is actually art, so . . . " It ultimately wasn't a big deal, which was cool, and I got where the woman was coming from. I wanted to touch them too.
The title of that piece riffs on Rosalind Krauss' influential 1979 essay 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field,' in which the critic mapped sculpture's shift towards postmodernism as it had moved distinctly away from the monumental, from being held up on a pedestal, and so on, and became more enmeshed literally into the earth or the world more generally around it. Here though, Yee brings back the pedestal and, in a way, a ritual—the display feels church-like, but also like a grocery store endcap. We are meant to revere art, yet art remains a commodity, with no signs of turning back. So what is the difference?
Each of Yee's works in the show feels like a component of some larger whole yet to be developed—a selection of head-scratchers. But as she says in her statement, she's "interested in the failure of art," and how the artist plays god, but all of her attempts wind up as petty simulacra and remain so. Like how that lady was reprimanded just for touching (maybe not even taking) a tissue. A to-scale photo transfer of a light switch, titled 'Wall Art,' on a wall almost goes unnoticed. Six laptop-screen-sized inkjet prints of screenshots of last year's Olympics in Rio, mostly of in-between moments where there is no action, where the track or field or winner's stand are empty, are beautiful compositions. In 'A Far-Off Country,' a silent video of a flag—printed with a cloudy blue sky—billows in the wind against a cloudy blue sky, and that's all we're allowed to see of this mystery country. The clouds on the flag look like they're upside down, too: What kind of lazy jerks or creative geniuses let that go? Yee seems to want us to shoulder some of that weight, to do most of the work and the mental gymnastics to figure it out.