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Art

Ordinary Peoples

Prize Finalists Explore The Persnickety Conditions Of Being Human

EYES ON THE PRIZE (from top): Frank Hallum Day's "Beauty Taped To The Door"; Baby Martinez' "An Outdoor Sign Is Stolen, Sanded, Repainted, And Returned To The Store Before It Reopens The Following Day"; Tony Shore's "Alternator"; Karen Yasinsky's "La Nuit."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 7/11/2007

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 5

It's appropriate that the presentation of the seven finalists for this year's Sondheim Prize should assume the civic form it has taken at the Baltimore Museum of Art: It's a people show. With the exception of one anthropomorphic video installation, the selected work is about real and surrogate people. No landscapes, no abstracts, no geometric grids, no botanicals or geology--just the myriad ways and means of fellow earthlings.

Three esteemed New Yorkers--artist Derrick Adams, Bellwether Gallery owner/director Becky Smith, and Yale University School of Art dean/2007 Venice Biennale commissioner Robert Storr--chose the Sondheim finalists from more than 320 Baltimore-area applicants, and will award one artist a $25,000 gift.

The BMA's Thalheimer Galleries invite us into the results with a series of color photographs representing the diverse denizens of the globe, lined up and hung head high on the opposite wall from the entrance. Geoff Grace's "our them, their them" photographs capture individual faces interspersed with their mirrored counterparts. The double portraits form a queue beneath a map of the continents that Grace has gold-leafed directly onto the wall. Sited nearby are his 3-D implements of survival--a manipulated shovel with an extended handle, titled "dig deep, and be dug deep in return," and a glass of water titled "oh! sweet nuthin'." Grace's conscientious, custodial work--if not groundbreaking--proposes a message of empathy and reciprocity in a world often in need of tending.

Baby Martinez's documentary photographs are similarly predisposed. In the spirit of the inspirational bumper sticker that proposes something more than most folks are ready to trouble themselves with, Martinez actually practices random acts of kindness: creating benches from scavenged wood and placing them at bus stops that otherwise offer no seating; stealing a struggling store's sign, then rejuvenating it and replacing it before the owner returns the following morning. In another senseless act of beauty, he sweeps shattered glass together into a square to photograph it, creating a little momentary magic for passers-by before traffic redistributes it.

From distant famine-besieged lands such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, photographer Frank Hallam Day brings back word that, despite political and economic trials, the aspiration to feminine pulchritude remains steadfast. Battered mannequins from wig shops and beauty salons, their looks fixed in a style of pointy upturned noses with cool Gloria Swanson severity, glance out from plate-glass time capsules in a possessed, Sunset Boulevard manner of cool disdain. With past-their-prime gray/pink skin, black smudges, and chipped noses, they endure through tenacity if only because they have no other option. Ethiopia may hold the oldest traces of humanity in its soil, and Day's Ethiopian Beauty Salon series conveys that distinction through garish depictions of the nation's current women, who survive the ravages of time with the edict to sustain a procreative ideal.

A beauty of a vastly different sort dwells in Richard Cleaver's monumental installation, which commands an entire end wall with a retinue of elaborate figures and supportive elements. His is the kind of beauty woven out of superstition. Wondrous translations emerge out of dark fables through his figures--fairy tales that believe that magic or faith can ease a fearful mind.

Cleaver transforms the human exigencies of not only loss, isolation, dread, and suffering, but also birth and revelation, into resplendent modern gothic icons, extravagant with glass beads, pearls, garnets, and gold-leaf luster. They possess quiet, sinless, and somewhat familiar faces and upright well-behaved stances. He further deifies his holy family with elaborate faux-cloisonné surfaces and exquisitely tender zoomorphic attributes. Some protection from harm, temptation, or unwelcome influences is supplied in a few of the figures' cramped grotto housing, just barely larger than themselves. Cleaver's ceramic personae are often partly architecture, with faces or chests or hands that become slightly ajar doors or shelves that pull open to reveal desires, motives, ghosts, and other undercurrents of the psyche. These icons, almost involuntarily, escort you to a demure form of self-acceptance through their strange example in much the same way the Roman Catholic Church uses richly ornamented icons for spiritual conversion.

Another artist whose translations emerge out of dark fables is Tony Shore. His recurring fables belong to a different tradition of human mysticism, velvet painting, which the artist borrows to surpassing effect. His paintings' summer nocturnal ritual is the covenant of the bug light, the card deck, and the six-pack. The glistening beads and shimmering surfaces of Shore's corpulent, scantily clad figures, barely discernable in the night shadows, are hard-won, hard-evaporated sweat. Any attendant ants and mosquitoes are not animal attributes but thriving nocturnal fauna crawling up a neck looking for a snack.

Shore's extraordinary paintings of blue-collar America gathering in the relative cool of the night to relax in each other's company and the meager bounty of their demanding lives are startling, without necessarily meaning to be--threatening maybe because they recall a parallel society, one that negotiates personally with survival and has little truck with order or beauty. Shore's dim lamplight revelations offer a voyeuristic peek into solemn, private incidents. His damp characters embody the effects of their lifestyle, big belly folds protruding from tightly stretched clothing and a resigned quality as they melt into their chairs or adjust a dialysis unit. Through Old Master conventions of lighting and spatial organization, emphasized in velvet's soft impressionistic manner, Shore leads toward understanding what his subjects understand of each other. The paintings' darkness allows us to acclimate to their world unnoticed, to overhear them addressing each other's burdens over cards or repeating some old shared joke.

The remaining two artists work with video animation in vastly different ways. Eric Dyer's "Bellows March" is a complex fabrication that some video aficionados will appreciate for the variety of motion-picture techniques Dyer uses while others will regard the kinetoscopic contraption basically as magic fed by the advancing inventions of Louis Lumière and Eadweard Muybridge. The film stars a rotating concertina wheel. With small manipulated marching legs the wheel kicks us a few associations, from the unsettling robotic style and message of Fritz Lang's Metropolis to the slapstick movements of Charlie Chaplin. Your own thoughts will likely add to its implied content, as "Bellows March"'s soldiers march obediently onward and without pause or closure.

Karen Yasinsky's two animations, running consecutively in a theater at the rear of the installation, oppose Dyer's ordered machinery with tentative little raggedy-doll figures. The dolls wrestle with their thoughts with itchy longing and sober faces on behalf of an abiding passion. Yasinsky takes the ubiquitous outcome of a proper children's story, " . . . and then they lived happily ever after," and brackets it in the endless pathology of human desire. Even as her bride automaton is lifted and enfolded in the arms of her suitor on a hill at sunset, there is something sad lingering, some quelled imbalance in their quirky patchwork love affair. It's pretty obvious from the 15 drawings that hang in the annex that Yasinsky would not be satisfied with bliss anyway. In "Curious, she stands alone," her often tarted-up cartoon protagonists are racked with feathery inner angst or follow through on various sexual frolics while looking at the artist and/or viewer for help. They are slight of line and volume but portending in their presence.

The Sondheim Prize will be awarded on July 13. The winner is yet unknown. But whoever it might be, he or she will almost certainly carry a torch for the magnanimous effect of art on our kind. That is not always the case.

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