We have no idea who will win the 10th annual Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize this year. We’re even hesitant to claim any particular favorites; the three out-of-town judges did an OK job in both selecting a diverse group of artists whose work appeals on many different levels, and ensuring that the $25,000 prize will be awarded to a Baltimore-based artist.
Given this geographical proximity among all these artists (and the MICA connections among most of them), it makes sense that there are a few stylistic and conceptual crossovers. Magnolia Laurie’s paintings and structures—which explore perception, place, and the fragility of those things—sit well near Ryan Syrell’s somewhat-meta and cartoony paintings and sculptures (which depict his paintings and his sculptures). Their styles differ, but both confront the notion of “the landscape” and what it means to observe, absorb, and depict the world around us. Jim Leach, whose work is situated in both a physical and metaphorical space between Syrell’s and Laurie’s work, builds his own surreal world, with veiled violins and horse heads sculpted from foam and somewhere in there, he claims, a “sack full of cats.” He lets us walk around the disparate elements of his sculptures as we question our own relationship to the space and the objects, while building our own logic to understand it all.
The most immersive example of world-building, however, comes from Wickerham & Lomax (a duo composed of Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax), whose installation features the most maximum-maximalist array of sculptures and videos that depict a dystopian future Baltimore, rife with rampant bro culture and police surveillance—which, actually, doesn’t sound very far off from present day Baltimore.
Exploring other regions and histories of the world are the last three artists: Zoë Charlton, Mequitta Ahuja, and Benjamin Kelley. With his decontextualized archaeological specimens, Kelley draws us in to methodically observe and unpack each part of his sculptures as artifacts. Charlton’s large-scale drawing/collage makes a monument to a 19th-century African servant boy who died around age 12, representing him as a full-grown, independent man. And Ahuja’s paintings embrace, rather than obfuscate, their references to Sienese painting and impressionism, among other canonical moments in art history, while also firmly asserting her own agency and identity within this tradition of creating.
One thing that we shouldn’t ignore, however: All but two of the seven finalists (Ryan Syrell and Zoë Charlton) have ties to MICA as former students or as faculty or both (or as an artist-in-residence in the case of Mequitta Ahuja), which raises questions about access and opportunity in building up the work, applying, and competing for “Baltimore’s most prestigious artist award.” The art community, like so many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and “scenes,” really isn’t just one community—it’s segregated, or siloed, as Kalima Young explained in an essay for our State of the Arts issue last year. One part of the Art-Part’heid panel discussion in January addressed grants and funding for artists, which organizer/poet/artist Sheila Gaskins described as a building that only some are allowed access to. And though we’ve been addressing class and racial disparities more directly, and it seems like many artists are committed to desegregating the scenes, there is still much more work to be done.
The Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists’ exhibition will be on display in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Thalheimer galleries through Aug. 9. The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced at a reception on July 11 at 7 p.m.