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Group Shrug

The Art in MAP’s Our Perfect World has Nothing in Common But an Area Code

Urinetown: Steve Pauley's marble-and-steel "Bathroom Stall (For da Bitches)" helps keep Artscape real.

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/30/2004

Our Perfect World

At Maryland Art Place through July 24

It’s always nice when curators successfully coax a slew of different artists, approaches, subjects, and media to huddle together under the same conceptual umbrella. In recent months, some of Mobtown’s most interesting art offerings have been multiartist exhibits. January’s four-venue love letter to comics, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Work Ethic, and UMBC’s Paradise Now all drew genuine and intriguing connections between the artists they featured, proof that the ensemble approach is a formidable way to fill an art gallery, when it’s done well.

That said, there’s a big difference between a mindfully collected, carefully interconnected theme show and a roomful of works by 20 artists who don’t have much in common beyond the 410 area code. Our Perfect World, Maryland Art Place’s contribution to Artscape 2004, is in the latter category, despite a nigh-desperate effort to package itself as the Baltimore art scene’s response to the world’s turbulent political climate.

“Package” being the key word. As uniting show concepts go, Our Perfect World is bunk—and given Artscape’s accepted identity as a showcase of local work, a completely unnecessary excuse for collecting a wild hodgepodge of contemporary art. But if a plain variety show is what you’re looking for, Our Perfect World is a decent place to get it.

The front of the gallery features several artists, including a pair of older works by local favorite Matthew McConville, but the spotlight belongs to sculptor Soomin Ham. Ham’s large untitled hive of Korean rice cakes glows steadily from within, infusing the piece’s geometric precision with ethereal, womblike warmth. Placed on the floor near Ham’s work, Desmond Beach’s “Self”—basically a knit afghan draped over a fetally clenched humanoid lump, then covered with white plaster—feels delightfully sloppy and accidental. Alternately evoking childhood games of hide-and-seek, Pompeiian volcano victims, crime-scene body bags, mummies, and hungover Sunday mornings spent cocooned beneath the covers, “Self” successfully addresses the universal impulse to enshroud the human body, dead or alive.

On a less troubling note, photographer Jill Myers presents three small palladium-print portraits of elderly people, faded and fuzzed out in all the right places. Far from controversial, Myers is refreshingly able to step aside and let her subjects tell their own visual stories—deteriorating lipstick, half-smiles, smudged eye shadow, and all. There’s nothing new happening here, but Myers manages to find subtle elegance in the familiar.

Steve Pauley deals with decidedly less elegant—but equally familiar—subjects in his new stone works, adding yet another strong sculptural presence to MAP’s Artscape roster. “Bathroom Stall (For da Bitches)” is a marble-and-steel reproduction of a beloved and seldom celebrated permanent-marker magnet: the public toilet stall. Ranging from the crude and all-encompassing (see subtitle) to the private and profound (“Jon, one heartbeat of freedom is better than a life of slavery”), Pauley’s carved mantras turn off-the-cuff scribbles into permanent inscriptions. “Fast Floor (Sugar Babies)” takes a similar approach to a 5-by-6-foot grid of granite floor tile, carving detailed images of familiar urban detritus into the surface, including a smashed can of Natty Boh, twisted cigarette butts, and movie theater candy boxes. The piece has pop appeal, particularly in a gallery setting, but Pauley’s sculptures beg to be placed in high-traffic commercial areas, next to real toilets and sidewalks. Consumed by the masses, his work could serve as a one-man antidote to the sameness of public art, appealing to savvy viewers who recognize the parody, as well as casual passers-by drawn to his pitch-perfect mimicry of the commonplace.

Tina Carroll and Joel Gaydos’ deranged sense of humor dominates the back room at MAP, with two pastel-colored farm animal scenes that litter the floor like bloated children’s toys. An obvious criticism of genetic engineering and the Frankenfood phenomenon, “Picnicpig” is a Pepto-Bismol pink vinyl, latex, and silicone abomination, sporting a grotesque, doughy human death mask. “PopCorn Sheep (Biological Quirk for a Sunday Matinee)” uses a multiheaded sheep and multiple ears of papier-mâché corn to parody two of the gene-manipulation industry’s most maligned end results. Carroll and Gaydos clearly mean what they’re saying, but their message is conveyed with all the subtlety of a PETA rally. Their demented barnyard is fun to look at, and technically well-executed, but the pieces add little to the growing dialogue between art and science.

More original—and almost as strange—are Alex Kondner’s giant baby bibs, which appropriate and laminate iconic images from Renaissance art. Half commentary on pop culture’s tendency to turn high art into kitschy décor, half pop art joke, titles like “I Love Mommy, I Love Daddy” and “Where’s Daddy” complement Kondner’s massive mirror installation, “Complicit Apostles,” which riffs on pop-culture icons. Taken together, his works feel more like anxiety of influence than homage, borrowing heavily from Andy Warhol’s celebrity silkscreens and engaging in a patriarchal tussle with the Old Masters.

If you can get past the self-conscious, touchy-feely attempt at a theme, Our Perfect World is an unevenly intriguing blend of artists. You won’t find any reactions to America’s rapidly changing foreign image, or any of the other issues that define the “transitional moment in history” alluded to in the exhibit notes. You will, however, find an adequate survey of Baltimore’s current artistic climate—and though it’s far from perfect, it’s good enough.

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