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Map’s Critic’s Residency Program Produces A Curious Grab-Bag Show

WEB SLUNG: A Spider’S-Eye View of Michele Kong’s installation “Verges.”

By J. Bowers | Posted 4/27/2005

Just Looking: The 19th Annual Critics’ Picks Exhibition

At Maryland Art Place through May 21. The public forum will be held April 30 at 2 p.m.

It’s been 19 years since Maryland Art Place began its Critics’ Residency—an annual program that brings a prominent critic to Baltimore to meet selected local artists and art writers, guide and critique their collective work, and curate a show of it at the gallery.

Conceptually, the program is strange. Allowing critics to attack, or influence, artists’ work before it is fully realized seems a little bit like putting the cart before the horse. And there’s a certain measure of condescension in having a player from New York’s art scene take the train to Mobtown to show us how it’s done. That said, the logistics of the program seems to have made little impact on its results. If anything, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Just Looking for a typical themeless group show, with all the expected unevenness and grab-bag ambience.

This year’s critic-in-residence, New York-based curator and art writer Franklin Sirmans, has put together a show that collects work from 10 Baltimore artists, all at wildly varying points in their careers, creating a random mixture of up-and-comers hanging next to established powerhouses.

Baltimore art geeks will recognize many of the names on offer, but they might notice just as readily that six months of feedback from Sirmans hasn’t cramped—or refined—their styles. Abstract minimalist Jo Smail offers four recent monumental oil and enamel works, expanding upon the elegant black/white/pink palette she established after losing many of her earlier works in a devastating fire. Whereas last fall’s Goya Girl exhibit found Smail creating a visual language with coiling black lines, all but one of the MAP works riff on absurd phrases (“Hotel Hotdog,” “Dustmop Department,” et al.), the words scrawled over and over until their meanings are obscured by the shapes of Smail’s calligraphic enamel lettering. It’s a step forward for Smail, but one gets the feeling that she made it of her own accord.

Similarly, New Jersey-born MICA wunderkind Marc Fanberg, fresh off an accolade from Esquire Japan’s Digital Photograph Awards, builds on his digital skills with the “Culture Icon” series, a collection of six manipulated black and white mash-ups that combine classic artworks with magazine shots of contemporary celebrities. Some contain cute visual jokes, with “Kahlo, Lachapelle, Madonna, Van Gogh, Memling” taking an image of Madonna used by the digital artist David Lachapelle, and replacing the pop singer’s trendy “third eye” jewelry with a Kahlo skull. “Magritte, Dali, Brody, Hobemma, Jones” recasts actor Adrien Brody as a top-hatted gentleman in a surrealist playground. Though his skill with Photoshop is undeniable, Fanberg is covering familiar territory with this series.

Concept photographer Christopher Gladora offers selected images from his “Attempt to Move Architecture” series—a sweet surrealist joke in which the artist photographs himself interacting with buildings throughout Baltimore with a Daily Show-deadpan demeanor. Some images are more predictable than others—in “Sports Arena,” he hurls himself bodily against Camden Yards—but Gladora’s more creative attempts at interaction with his subjects are witty and well-executed. In “Bureau of Transportation: Parking Division,” he goes to everyone’s least favorite Fallsway destination and gives the building itself a $52 parking ticket for “Obstructing/Impeding the Movement of Pedestrians.” In “Hospital Complex,” Gladora uses a stethoscope to discover that the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, age 116, has “no detectable heartbeat.” Gladora’s findings, along with the paper trail created while photographing the series, are collected in an accompanying binder, but one can’t help feeling that the project would be more vital as a video installation, allowing viewers to witness the whole gag.

Other artists—like photographer Sonya A. Lawyer, whose self-portraits trace her journey through sites of historical significance to her Columbia family, and painter Rebecca Blakely, who layers painted stickers to toy with texture and color—are promising and compelling in their own rights. But the real star of the show is Michele Kong, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who manipulates the concept of line within a delicate black, white, and gray palette. Kong’s delicate, geometrically intricate drawings—done out of necessity, as she found it difficult to transport her installations to and from artist’s residencies—are two-dimensional clues to what she can do when given free reign, while “ Verges,” an installation of three ethereal columns of carefully interlaced monofilament bedecked with droplets of glue, shows the full range of her power. Stretched floor-to-ceiling, with round mirrors anchoring each column, “Verges” embraces a minimalist aesthetic while dealing with complex combinations of line and form. Kong’s drawings are technically impressive, but they pale in comparison to her installation’s dizzying intricacy.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say whether Sirmans’ residency had any tangible effects on the artists who took part. Perhaps interested viewers can get more insight at the public forum on April 30, when the artists come together to discuss “issues relevant to contemporary art.” Until then, though, Just Looking might at least allow you to take the pulse of Baltimore’s contemporary art scene. It might not be racing, but we ain’t dead.

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