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The Sondheim Prize

$25,000 to Be Awarded to Regional Artist This Weekend

PRIZE SEEKERS: (from top) Maren Hassinger's "Love," Becky Alprin's "Cityscape 1," Dawn Gavin's "Annular," and Melissa Dickenson's "Bramble."
STATE OF GEOFF GRACE: An installation view of "It's The Linger, Not The Long."
SUB TEXT: An installation view of Molly Springfield's calotypes.

Posted 7/9/2008

Now in its third year, the annual Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize has become a major event in the regional arts community. Named after prominent and longtime Baltimore civic leader Walter Sondheim and his wife, the prize was designed specifically to help visual artists broaden their careers. Not only do the finalists get their works elegantly installed in the Baltimore Museum of Art, but the award itself is a serious, real investment in an artist's future. Nobody wants to put a price tag on the value of an artist's labor and contributions to a community, but after decades of constant devaluation of creative labor, $25,000 is a step in the right direction.

This weekend, one of this year's finalists--Becky Alprin, Melissa Dickenson, Dawn Gavin, Geoff Grace, Maren Hassinger, and Molly Springfield--joins the 2006 and 2007 awardees, Laure Drogoul and Tony Shore, with that considerable distinction. The finalists were chosen by jurors Laura Hoptman, senior curator at the New Museum, New York artist Mickalene Thomas, and writer and University of Chicago art history professor Darby English. This year, City Paper invited its writers to consider the works of each artist on their own merits rather than as a group show.

Becky Alprin

The acrylic wall and floor constructions of Becky Alprin are messengers of some current polarizing data on several levels. The most obvious is that they are rendered purely in white and/or black. No middle grounds of gray, nor insinuations of color, nor graven presence, tampers with their circumstances. The next polarizing layer--in fact, these works are made in layers to further their unspoken mission statement--is that some of the works (generally the wall pieces) gather form from the blurting irregularities of nature, while pure, refined architectural geometry configures the floor edifices. The third oppositional plane touches upon the ceaselessly violable discrepancies between desire and aversion. And a fourth concerns itself with the irony of how construction of some thing is the destruction of another.

Alprin's sculptural works are, in fact, not exactly likable--in spite of the advanced intellectual terms that present them, their severe, nearly Asian beauty, and even the intricate minutiae of their architectonics. The culprit is their medium, the highly polished, opaque Lucite that exudes a hostile no trespassing quality. Whether they remind you of some impersonal medical experience--a mammogram, or the privacy window the receptionist shuts after taking your info on a clipboard--or otherwise suggest new cutting boards that impede the tainting absorption of organisms (and in that category, ourselves), you may find them usefully resistant. Sort of like Woody Allen's famous self-loathing quote (borrowed from Groucho Marx): "I wouldn't want to belong to any organization that would have me."

Alprin's work will not accept its suitors and spectators. It exhibits a cold aversion to them. We don't belong in or to this work--especially the white pieces. (Given that you can see yourself reflected in the black ones, they do sort of begrudgingly let you in as permanent outsiders.) So all of the beauty Alprin invests in cutting her silhouetted layers into exquisite little foliage outlines and Hiroshige-like wave spray is essentially misanthropic and self-protective.

These conditions might be understood as commentative rather than diaristic, objective rather than subjective. Alprin is depicting the sterile environment of modern life, and its emphasis on its many industries to make everything superficially impervious, artificially young. Or she is telling perhaps a futuristic Snow White fairy tale of nature under glass waiting its renewing, reawakening marriage. Alprin's snow-white world has languished too long forsaken--to the point that nature, the nubile heroine, and the plexi-glass vitrine that protected her have melted and fused into one. (Deborah McLeod)


Melissa Dickenson

Using visually tempting handmade Japanese Kozo papers, with caricature style renderings, Melissa Dickenson's works play with the reduction of a situation to an absurd or darkly mischievous scenario in order to expose folly. Tiny struggling blooms, or vulnerable little anthropomorphic birds dangle adrift on a lovely but suspiciously treacherous backdrop. Dickenson's background has a somewhat maplike, aerial view quality, like silk moiré or tidal land where inlets and estuaries break up the pale flat planes, or where the last water has evaporated, leaving vestiges of puddles. In such instances it's a recent absence that the artist appears to compulsively exaggerate with pencil tracings.

Her animals, besides birds--her apparent favorite--might be fish or some cute four-legged mammalian creature, maybe containing part pig/part dog DNA. These little genetically evolved lives appear like rare cartoon fruit in the brambles of her landscapes. They defy gravity in their placement on the page, so ephemeral are they in this realm. The flowers that peer around the margins of the skit she depicts struggle to regain their birthright in this invasive nature, but their petals droop and their color migrates, albeit prettily, in the white glare of her paper. Even the vehicle of her Awagami paper ,with its crushed mulberry bark strips and stringy hemp fibers, supports the secret suggestion of a long-term decimation going on throughout the scene. Dickenson lived in Japan for a period of time, and its culture has obviously implanted itself in her aesthetic, blending both its venerable landscape characteristics and more recent anime styles. Dickenson illustrates a childlike fantasy of a place, so charming and engaging, yet gently undergoing ruination. But because its folly is so like our own nature, what we respond favorably toward, we hardly notice the inherent problem. (DM)


Dawn Gavin

Dawn Gavin's two works in the Sondheim finalists exhibition explore the same topic as the recent series of map-themed exhibitions that overtook Baltimore this spring. In her attempts to "mediate power structures inherently present in maps to create uncertain cartographic landscapes," Gavin deals with the contrasting ideas of lost and found, visible and invisible, unknown and familiar. As in many of her other works, Gavin grapples with her ongoing interests in the authority and artifice present in maps and examines the concept of boundaries as they ultimately relate to the formation of identity and knowledge of the self.

Given the current election-year climate, where issues surrounding national borders and citizenship are key talking points, these works could have easily had strong political overtones. Both "Annular" and "Subduction III," however, are undoubtedly personal, and perhaps at least partially rooted in Gavin's own cross-cultural experience as a Scottish person living in the United States. Whatever her impetus, it is clear that the process of destroying and then re-purposing these documents of authority has equal significance for Gavin as the resulting artwork.

"Annular," Gavin's pair of concentric circles constructed entirely from insect pins and map fragments, reflects the obsessive nature of her long-running interest in maps and geographical documentation. "Annular's" thousands of tiny pins affix small circles of cutout maps to the gallery wall, preserving a place in time like a butterfly in an etymological display case. But just as a butterfly loses its identity and purpose when removed from its natural surroundings, a geographical document becomes irrelevant when reduced to tiny rounds of paper. The pinned fragments of map arranged in two interconnecting concentric circles shed their old meanings to become part of a beautiful, impermanent, and otherworldly whole. Here, Gavin reminds us that while maps have an air of permanence, authority, and intransitivity, they, like the fragile installation, are temporary, malleable, and ever subject to change.

Where "Annular" is meditative and flowing in its rhythmic energy, "Subduction III" shows a disjointed, angular, and sprawling array of carefully delineated pentagonal and hexagonal spaces. Working in a muted palette of grays, Gavin uses thin strips of indecipherable maps to divide the darker, central areas, while allowing the outlying shapes eventually to break off and fade into obscurity.

Another key medium in both "Annular" and "Subduction III" are the shadows created by the interplay of the map fragments with light. The three-dimensional elements cast graceful shapes underneath the pins and across the acrylic surfaces, becoming as much a part of each piece as the tangible components. Yet, these shadows are entirely variable, dependent on the number of lights on at any given time, the position of the viewer, and the time of day. These works continually change, not only forcing us to contemplate the transitory space between places, but reminding us again that borders, despite our preconceived notions, are ephemeral, fragile, and organic. (Kate Noonan)


Geoff Grace

Geoff Grace is one of the more nimble visual thinkers working in Baltimore right now, period. His work is always conceptually adroit, his execution both accessibly casual and intelligently captivating, and the results insouciantly rich. And for his Sondheim prize entry, Grace turns a pair of BMA gallery walls into something akin to a lively street mural, a dear friend's collection of photography curios, and an instant bad-mood inverter.

His mixed-media "it's the linger, not the long" incorporates photographs, drawings, and objects, and a mere verbal description is barely going to harness its beguiling charms and rewarding psychological depth. Across two adjoining walls, Grace has installed framed photographs of various scenes at varying heights. Scattered among these photos are various round objects--e.g., metal washers--and circle drawings on paper. These drawings are mere rounds rendered in what looks like graphite, many with a small circular perforation on them, as if the remnants of small-caliber single-shot target practice. A small vase with dried flowers and plants sits atop a stack of books to give the wall a domesticated, almost living-room feel. He also includes a trio of clay wall drawings: three practically life-sized giraffes, their front feet splayed and necks extending their heads to the ground as if drinking from a pool on the gallery's floor.

In his installation's accompanying text, Grace suggests the piece was in some ways inspired by pinhole photography, less for its visual image-making than for its idea translation. And looking at Grace's work, it's easy to understand why he would have become enamored of this early photographic technique. It's a low-tech strategy that produces a highly sophisticated image, able to be qualitatively controlled but still prone to unforeseen environmental influence. It's the sort of wonderful collision of high/low that runs so engagingly through his visual output.

And it's the key to finding a way inside "it's the linger, not the long," if you need one. Pinhole photography is one of the most basic forms of capturing reality, even though the process distorts that reality as much as any form of trying to freeze a moment of fleeting time. We know this--we know photos aren't the way things were, but the way we choose to remember them: art's way of helping us linger on the funny, happy, sad, silly, and whatever moment and not on history's long haul. And there's simply something awkwardly and familiarly vulnerable in the human impulse to want to trap reality and cozily hold it to the bosom as a framed memory on the wall--an act as crazy beautiful as a beast that adapted to eat from the tops of hard to reach foliage that still has to bow down to drink. (Bret McCabe)


Maren Hassinger

Working in nontraditional, man-made materials, Maren Hassinger, Maryland Institute College of Art professor and director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture, conjures up environments that are at once unearthly yet organically familiar and imbued with emotional undercurrents. Throughout her artistic career, Hassinger's work has addressed the notion of loss, and her Sondheim finalists exhibition's works illustrate the progression of her thematic focus since both she and her subsequent works were profoundly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York. While her earlier, pre-Sept. 11 works addressed the concept of loss in regard to the end of nature in an ever-mechanizing world, her more recent pieces have expanded their scope to include loss on a broader spectrum, and perhaps more importantly incorporate the related ideas of coping and healing. As Hassinger affirms in her artist statement, love and knowledge begin the path toward healing, and her "Love" and "Wrenching News" tackle these themes head-on.

Admittedly, love as a subject isn't exactly novel, but Hassinger works with it in an innovative and moving way. Unlike Robert Indiana's iconic work of the same name, Hassinger's monumental piece is decidedly more subtle, despite employing a few of the same visual cues. Both works are similar in their use of bold color, graphic text, and imposing size, but Hassinger more effectively communicates her themes by enveloping them in a soft environment of love, rather than simply advertising the emotion. Constructed of pink plastic bags that amass in the corner of two walls and rise up from floor to ceiling, "Love" gently invites you into its soft maternal space. By selecting a color with highly feminine associations, Hassinger transforms what could easily have been an intimidating and amorphous work into a warm and comforting healing center. As you enter the soothing womblike environment, the translucent pink bags reveal their tiny contents, each carrying a small rectangular note printed with the word love. While some notes fall away from view, others rest against the bags' thin film, quietly offering their counsel.

By taking the viewer on a journey through her two works, Hassinger poetically illustrates her points. The movement is both literal and symbolic: Before you make it to "Love," you must pass through "Wrenching News," constructed entirely and appropriately enough out of newspaper, recalling not only the ceaseless coverage of Sept. 11 but also the printed obituaries of this human tragedy. In stark contrast to Hassinger's soaring and brightly colored "Love," "Wrenching News" is an expansive, low to the ground gray-scale sculpture. Hassinger creates a bed of swaying grasses out of twisted and tied bundles of newspaper strips, and the gentle movement of the newspaper lends the uncanny impression of an underwater landscape, an eloquent symbol of the doldrums of loss. Here we are, sinking to the bottom, before slowly but inevitably swimming upward to break the surface. (KN)


Molly Springfield

For today's critics and graduate students, the text is never a simple thing. We have all been trained to dissect, discredit, and deconstruct everything around us, from literature to advertisements. But in all this deconstructing we sometimes forget how material the printed word once was. Those of us who still sign checks know about the pen, but even typewriters required white-out for correcting, mimeographing for copying, and other inky processes. Manuscripts were not the neatly bound and typeset books we read, nor the easy-to-reproduce computer files we put on Kindles. We have only the legendary stories--the continuous rolls of paper used by Jack Kerouac for On the Road, the handwritten mess Max Perkins assembled to make Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, the sprawling manuscript of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time--but they're far from the only examples.

Washington artist Molly Springfield takes a different tack to approaching the materiality of the written word. Growing out of a longstanding interest in paper, and notes in particular, Springfield has hand-drawn, or redrawn, the printed pages of literary works of all sorts in a series of pieces that reopen questions of the text in an age where even Xeroxing sounds dated.

The most obvious of the pieces is her series of reproductions of the first chapter of Proust's Swann's Way, the opening book where Marcel first tastes the madeleine cake. If Springfield had reproduced the original manuscript, it would have been a three-dimensional piece, with entire passages crossed out and others tacked on, as Proust, defying his editors, made a new work with each correction. While Springfield performs a similar trick by drawing on three English translations to create a compiled work, she draws the pages as they might appear in an undergraduate course pack, including the underlining of shockingly few paragraphs and the print marks of an indifferent copy job.

Springfield's painstaking attention to detail gives the pieces the shine of carelessness, but not in her other work displayed here--particularly her reproductions of work by the early photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, who published the first book to be illustrated entirely with photographs in six sections, between 1844 and '46. Springfield doesn't try to reproduce Talbot's photographs, though, instead focusing on the pedagogic warnings he used to alert the viewer or reader of what they were about to encounter. For these pieces, Springfield has enlarged text or pages from Talbot's book, like one reading only "Gentle Reader," recalling the trompe l'oeils and word plays of 1960s artists such as Ed Ruscha.

And Springfield follows through on this promise of conceptual work with a series of reproductions of theoretical texts written in the '60s and '70s that helped establish the very tradition she is following. Although artists and writers such as Lucy Lippard might not be known outside of art school, Springfield's nod to these works allows her to claim a stake in the now familiar debates about nostalgia, memory, and imitation.

Materialists often get caught up in the materials themselves, usually antique products and processes, from handmade paper to natural fibers. Springfield's drawings of haphazardly copied and annotated books reminds us that almost everything becomes material; only we choose to reward the old processes, like books, and ignore new ones, like photocopies. By reversing this process, Springfield shows us that the text is often as material as we want it to be, even in an immaterial age. (Martin L. Johnson)

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists run through Aug. 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Sondheim Prize winner is announced at the BMA July 12 at 7 p.m. The Sondheim Prize winner gives a curatorial talk at the BMA July 17 from 1 to 2 p.m. Works by the 2008 Sondheim Prize semifinalists are on view July 17-Aug. 2 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker and Meyerhoff galleries.

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