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Monumental

A New MAP Exhibit Commemorates the Here and Now

Face the Nation: "Countenance," by Mich'l B. Platt is part of Maryland Art Place's current show Remembering the Present.
"The Greatest Monuments of All Time Monument" by Clarke Bedford

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 5/9/2001

Remembering the Present

A Change of Place: Photographs by Joseph Hyde

Maryland Art Place through May 26

It's hard to imagine a more appropriate city for the 14-artist exhibit Remembering the Present than Baltimore--unless it's Washington. Curated by Maryland Art Place (MAP) executive director Jack Rasmussen, the show, in which artists propose monuments to capture the spirit of contemporary society, began at Washington's Kreeger Museum and is now installed in MAP's new Inner Harbor gallery. (Washington, of course, is lousy with marble, and Baltimore's known as "The Monumental City.")

The artists in Remembering sought to answer, in essence, this question: If a marble general on a horse celebrates our past, what sort of monuments can capture our present? They responded with preparatory drawings and maquettes for proposed monuments, as well as a few constructions, and they obviously had fun doing it. Most of the proposals are whimsical, but even the silliest responses touch on the serious issues involved in trying to capture our era.

Clarke Bedford is the most playfully literal-minded. His wood, metal, plaster, clay, and oil-paint "Model for the Greatest Monuments of All Time Monument" is a mini-tower built out of architectural references to the Empire State Building, Big Ben, Stonehenge, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, D.C.'s Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, a pyramid, the Sphinx, the Parthenon, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore, and more. Bedford sparks some thoughts about postmodern irony, which calls for such a blending of past and present, as we make contemporary landmarks out of historical shards. With so many centuries and styles behind us, our own lives self-consciously become an eclectic accumulation of all that has gone before.

But his model may also prompt us to consider whether this arbitrary blending of places and cultures doesn't glibly reduce such monuments to the architectural equivalent of a sound bite. After all, aren't visitors to Las Vegas able to see simulations of many of the world's great monuments and thereby spared the need to visit the far-flung real things?

Bedford is cartoonishly direct in method, but something more subtle may be going on in Robert J. Devers' "Maquette for Monument to the Present." It's an earth-toned abstract sculptural construction made out of unfired paper clay tubes. Tightly packed together, rising up at diagonal angles, these tubes have a forceful quality. They evoke the same energy as is found in one of the great monument proposals of the 20th century, Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International." Working in the Constructivist style popular during the idealistic years just after the Russian Revolution, Tatlin produced a number of models in 1919 and 1920 for what would have been an enormous abstract sculpture.

If Bedford and Devers borrow from architectural history, other artists in the show are up-to-the-minute in their references. Ed Bisese, for instance, has an acrylic-painted papier-mâché sculptural figure, "Model for e-separation," representing a business-suited man with a cell phone pressed to his ear. Rather than clasping a sword or scepter, this important (or maybe just self-important) figure from our own era is immortalized with his most important appendage.

Real people from our time are presented in the 96 photographic portraits that make up Michael B. Platt's "Countenance." His subjects, all Washington-area residents, literally represent the faces of our society; indeed, the artist writes that his proposal calls for projecting these images onto the sides of a building. The portraits have been subjected to computer manipulation, resulting in some blurring and other technical manipulations. Thematically, it's not clear why the artist has done this. Does he intend to blur our usual documentary expectations, calling into question the reliability of monuments (or any documents) in capturing our full identities? Or is he unfortunately succumbing to the modern assumption that we should manipulate reality with technology simply because we can?

One of the most intriguing pieces in this exhibit doesn't rely on art-historical references or thematic content so much as on the sculptural material itself to make its point. John Ruppert's "Orb," made of chain-link fencing, is a large round sculpture that does two things quite succinctly: It suggests that a contemporary monument should be made out of something ubiquitous, and its see-through nature allows us to see several of the show's other pieces through it. This framing is similar to what Ruppert achieved last year with chain-link sculptures installed on the grounds of Evergreen House. Looking at the world through chain-link is a familiar modern situation.

In a charcoal drawing and a related tiny mixed-media sculpture, Jeff Spaulding proposes an outdoor sculptural "Monument" in which a baby's lower half protrudes from the opening in a spiral-shaped seashell. This fusion of two curving forms is formally pleasing but also thematically unsettling. Is the baby in danger? Why is this kid stuck inside a seashell anyway?

Because the seashell has ancient, primal associations, and the baby has obvious associations with nascent life, their merger is a fascinating one. If this monument were ever built, it would simultaneously take our thoughts into the past and the future. Come to think of it, that's what living in the present is all about.

As the artists in Remembering the Present contemplate how best to immortalize our time and place, a second exhibit at Maryland Art Place considers the concept of place itself. A Change of Place uses large prints of Joseph Hyde's black-and-white photographs to document the construction process that transformed vacant retail space into MAP's new gallery in the Power Plant Live entertainment complex.

Seeing images of the new MAP's ductwork, sub-floor, and wiring reminds us that institutions such as this gallery are subject to changes in location, and that a geographic place is itself subject to change in order to accommodate a new use. If traditionally conceived monuments address our desire for physical, unchanging constructions, just about everything else in life seems to be in flux. In various ways, we spend our lives moving from one building to another; in the process, we're constantly rebuilding ourselves.

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