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Front Room: Ripple Effect

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/6/2007

Thomas Hirschhorn's giddily creepy "Chandelier With Hands" (pictured) stands at the one entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art's contemporary wing like something cast aside from a horror movie or an absurdist theater production. From the front--at least, the broad side greeting visitors to the wing's Front Room--the piece, a sculptural Laocoön of wood, brown plastic bubble wrap, and painted plastic hands, is equal parts candelabra and contemporary art doohickey. The base is a sturdy lumber cross, the armature a plywood expanse like bones in a bat's wings, with amorphous blobs of packing tape circling some parts of the frame like a quick study for one of Greg Lynn's architectural blobs or a crude markup for the cocoons people are going to be wrapped in for the next remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Topping the piece's eight (pseudo) peaks are the plastic body parts--each a right hand facing you in a macabre, disembodied wave, as if lopped off a local beauty queen sitting on the back of a convertible during a parade.

It's the sort of piece that really makes the room--any room--and as seen through the organizing eye of Darsie Alexander, the BMA's senior curator for contemporary art, "Chandelier With Hands" becomes a nexus in a web of the museum's holdings. Front Room: Ripple Effect is the latest in an ongoing curatorial strategy to invite museumgoers to look at the BMA's holdings as more than mere things in the gallery (see also: 2006's Robert Motherwell: Meanings of Abstraction and 2002's New on View). A "dialogue" is the typical cliché used to talk about how works relate to one another--art-historically, thematically, and curatorially--but Ripple Effect makes this case in plain visual language: there are causal reasons for what you see at a museum.

And it's very, very refreshing to encounter a contemporary art exhibition that invites you to look without telling you what to think. Ripple Effect organizes its thematic considerations on the walls surrounding the Hirschhorn, inviting you to consider the cross (which includes four works on paper, one each from Albrecht Altdorfer, Max Beckmann, Albrecht Dürer, and a devastating Goya), the hand (which includes seven photographs, a print, and a Robert Gober crayon lithograph), materials, and subject matter, an arresting combination of Philip Guston's 1970 "Untitled," six panels from Andy Warhol's 1971 "Electric Chair" series, and Tim Davis' almost cheeky 2005 chromogenic color print "Sconce (Illuminated)." Each wall is a different entry point into the Hirschhorn in addition to a welcome glimpse of the wealth in the BMA's works on paper that aren't always on view.

One of the most rewarding pieces in this menagerie is Dieter Roth's "Chocolatewafer Picture," another BMA recent accession. This wall-mounted filled chocolate wafer and curdled milk in plastic sleeve is little more than an array of six rows and columns of chocolate left to whatever elements can disturb the plastic sleeve--and it's eerie how disturbing the piece feels. Standing in front of it, the almost henna color of the chocolate makes its provenance more slippery, and the smears and streaks inside the plastic sleeve start to make you believe you're staring at some kind of medical hemoglobin product gone horribly off. It's quite thrilling. (Bret McCabe)

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