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The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010

Posted 7/7/2010

The Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2010 Finalists

Through Aug.1 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Leah Cooper's "Iterated, Gallery 4-Part A" (detail)

Leah Cooper

Don't be surprised if you walk into the final two galleries of the Sondheim exhibition and wonder where the art is: Installation artist Leah Cooper has crafted almost the Platonic ideal of hiding in plain sight. That admittedly sounds a little high and mighty, but Cooper's work unequivocally asks the most of you of anything in this Sondheim Finalists exhibition. It wants you to look at what is always there differently.

Recontextualizing the familiar and mundane isn't easy, and it's naïve and lazy to read this work as contemplative and serene. Cooper's materials read more like a metaphysical workman's toolbox contents--graphite, tape, Plexiglas, Masonite, light/shadow, existing site elements--and she uses them with a Raymond Carveresque specificity. Her installation--titled "Iterated, Gallery 4-Part A"--may initially look like little more than a minimalist assortment of shadows, pencil lines lightly drawn on the wall, rolls of tape stacked up in a corner, reflective surfaces redirecting light and sightlines, stretches of tape extending from the wall across the carpet or diagonally reaching across a wall about waist high. The gallery's white walls dominate the installation's color experience, with sparing doses of graphite, black or gray tape, and the darker regions of shadows cutting into it.

It's not minimalist, though--it's aggressively ephemeral. The problem is that it takes time to notice (see: asking a great deal of you, above), and it probably works best with spaces with which you're very familiar. You imagine that the BMA's own gallery installation team members might find Cooper's work here the most intriguing, as they're people who have to rethink how to use this gallery each and every time they install an exhibition. Cooper does a visual rethink of the gallery's interior architecture that is always there: shadows from lights get elongated into visual quadrilaterals, heating/cooling vents suggest pinstripes across a white expanse, and Cooper's modest arrangement of materials on one wall turns overlapping shadows from recessed lights into a captivating, almost musical design that you can barely discern, like a seashell barely visible under sand.

Music, in fact, may be the best analog for what Cooper does. Just as ambient electronic music often strips away dance music's aggressive rhythms--elongating an experience of time by eliminating the sonic element that divides time into percussive beats--Cooper hones in on the visual and spatial relationships that define how a space is experienced, what gets noticed, what it is about the way two walls come together given an overhead light that might make people decide a sofa would look good just so. Ambient music at its most abstract, though, isn't a catalyst for twee trance rumination, it's a passageway to an entirely different aural state. Cooper performs a similar spatial kung-fu: Her visual output wants to use a familiar environment as a mental portal to another realm. (Bret McCabe)

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