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The 2009 Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize

By Bret McCabe, Martin L. Johnson, Kate Noonan and Alex Ebstein | Posted 7/8/2009

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists exhibition.

Baltimore Museum of Art, through Aug. 16

The Sondheim Prize winner is announced at the BMA July 11 at 7 p.m. The finalists provide a curatorial tour at the BMA July 16 at 1 p.m. Works by the 2008 Sondheim Prize semifinalists are on view July 17-Aug. 2 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's D

In only four years the Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize has not only become a vital monetary investment in a local artist, but a bit of a national bragging right for the city as well. The prize--$25,000--is nothing to sneeze at, an amount that can make an immediate difference in any artist's career. And as the past winners--Laure Drogoul in 2006, Tony Shore in 2007, and Geoff Grace last year--acknowledge in an interview about the prize with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs Jay Fisher (youtube.com/user/artBMA), it brings real attention to artists' work, the sort of very public recognition of the city's arts community and its contributions to local culture. And the mere opportunity to be eligible to win $25 grand just by living here goes a long way to demonstrating that the city does value what you do--and wants you to continue doing it here.

The prize, organized by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and named after the late celebrated public servant Walter Sondheim and his wife, is actually open to artists "living or working in Maryland, Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, and southeastern Pennsylvania," but thus far the winners have all been local. The 2009 prize announcement drew 334 entries from the mid-Atlantic region--as evidenced in the 25 semi-finalists, an exhibition of which opens July 16 in the Maryland Institute of Art's Decker and Meyerhoff galleries with a reception from 6-8 p.m.--and the six finalists come from Kensington, Md., and Washington, D.C., in addition to Charm City.

For the third year in a row, one of them--the Baltimore Development Cooperative, Leslie Furlong, Ryan Hackett, Jessie Lehson, Molly Springfield, and Karen Yasinsky--will be named this year's winner at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the finalists' works are installed. Over the course of this Saturday, July 11, this year's judges--New York artist Ellen Harvey, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, and the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art Elisabeth Sussman--will peruse the work installed in the galleries and on the grounds in front of the museum, interview the artists, and eventually make their decision. The winner will be announced at 7 p.m., July 11 in the BMA's auditorium.

As we did last year, City Paper invited its arts writers to consider the finalists individually in brief essays about their work and ideas. (Bret McCabe)

Baltimore Development Cooperative

The Baltimore Development Cooperative is a deliberately unoriginal, even ominous name for a collective that intends to connect art with activism. The collective--whose core members are recent MICA graduates Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski--is best known for Participation Park, a large garden on a reclaimed vacant lot in East Baltimore. While it is outside the scope of this review to evaluate this project, either as art or activism, its presence is felt in the two large sculptures on display in the show, which express the group's ideas about political and community-based art.

The collective's indoor piece is a large cardboard sculpture that overwhelms even the largest room in the exhibition gallery. Your eye travels first skyward to the cranes and raised highways that top the sculpture, which looks as if it could be leftover from the production of a German Expressionist play. Baltimore's landmarks are piled on top of one another, as if ready to be salvaged for parts. The entire creaky structure--from the Jones Falls Expressway to the Bank of America building--is placed atop two bulldozer track wheels, turning the fantastical city into a destruction machine.

As startling as this piece is, it's not clear if it is it intended to be read as a sculptural manifesto for BDC or as a symbol of what its members are working against. The buildings and bridges atop the machine could be the scraps of Baltimore's history, collected so the beast of progress can advance. Or the bulldozer could be more metaphorical, demonstrating how the city's built environment is far more complex than the empty spaces developers prefer to start with when designing their projects, with the weight of history bearing down on even vacant lots. The ambiguity of the piece is only amplified by its intricate construction, which leads you away from more basic questions about the work's intent.

The geodesic dome outside the museum is the more interesting of the two pieces, in part because it remained under construction even after the exhibit opened. The plates of the dome are assembled out of what appears to be real-life construction debris, which makes the piece as much a demonstration project--look what can be done with objects that can be found around the city--as an artistic one. At the same time, the professional polish of the piece doesn't make it open to participation, and it is unlikely that someone would take a hacksaw and start assembling a section of the dome or making changes to its mobile kitchen.

This is not to say that there's a lack of things to think about these two pieces. By placing the adaptive reuse of refuse in an aesthetic context, the BDC does advance connections between urban development and artistic practices that are not mere marriages of convenience. But it is never clear in these pieces what the difference is between the public--however loosely defined--and the viewer, responsible only for observing the object. These two pieces appear to be made with the expectation that visitors will look at them as public pieces without thinking through what else community art can or should be. The intelligence of these pieces is evident, but in their execution there's something standoffish about them, which betrays the spirit of group's stated public mission. (Martin L. Johnson)

Leslie Furlong

Landscape photographer and video artist Leslie Furlong presents two very different bodies of work in this exhibition. In "Parking Lot Series," Furlong produces five large-format prints of parking lots in what appear to be Baltimore's exurbs. While the parking lot in each photograph is slightly different, Furlong manipulates them in the same way, with the bottom fifth of the frame taken up by the lot itself, as if it were a band of color in a Mark Rothko painting, and the upper three-fifths given over to sky. In between, you see the landscape itself--big-box stores, factories, housing developments, and construction cranes--reduced to almost nothing, as if Furlong wants simultaneously to show how small the buildings are when compared with the vast sky above and how much sky is left for the buildings to fill.

At first glance, Furlong appears to be working in the maximalist mode of Andreas Gursky, using photographs of parking lots to make social commentary on the surpluses of the Bush bubble. But where Gursky wants to show capitalism at its best--almost all the environments he photographs are pristine--Furlong photographs empty parking lots on cloudy days. Not all the buildings in view are finished, some of the parking lots are overgrown with weeds, and the painted lines on the pavement are faded and cracked. The closer you look it becomes clear that the parking lots are evidence of an aging landscape rather than sites for new development.

The two-channel video installation "Tokyo to Osaka" consists of side-by-side screens, each offering three and three-quarter minute tracking shots presumably taken from the bullet train that connects the two titular cities. While Furlong's photographs allow you ample time and space for contemplation, the frenzied pace of the video makes it incomprehensible except as a blur of apartment buildings, cultivated fields, roads, and trains passing in the other direction. Although the position of the camera doesn't appear to change over the course of the piece, the horizon, or at least what can be seen of it, is constantly disappearing, as other objects block the view. The uninterrupted sky of the parking lot photographs is countered by a rushed view of a train journey where the sky is almost never visible.

The man-made environments that appear in Furlong's work are not necessarily made well, nor do they succeed in blocking out the natural world. Instead, Furlong photographs spaces that are imperfect, victims of poor planning and society's indifference. But she doesn't recover these spaces--in "Tokyo to Osaka" she makes them even harder to see--as much as she presents them as they are, forgotten, empty, ready for business but rarely used. The parking lots will never be filled. No one will ever get off the train to run through the empty field. Your vision is restricted to what you can see, and Furlong, having recorded these spaces, feels no need to invite you in. (MLJ)

Ryan Hackett

NATURE IS BOTH the subject and surreptitious theme in Ryan Hackett's four multi-media pieces exhibited here. High-tech and hi-fi, the works are seductive, which is part of their charm; that they're so entertaining is part of their point. It's only after spending considerable time with them that their alienating sadness surfaces.

An initial response to these works is quite the opposite. Hackett's work here is playful and sensory, including imagery to tease the eyes, surfaces to please the touch, and sounds that seize the ears. His "Synthetic Tiger Skull with Artificial Sunlight Pads and Sound" puts you between a pair of floor-mounted light boxes--which deliver 10,000 lux, the light therapy designed to treat seasonal affective disorder--while you stare at a fake tiger skull and put on headphones to listen to a loop of electronically manipulated tiger sounds. Such modified sound becomes the main element in "Reconstructed Cicada Vocalizations: Controlled Communication for the Indoor Environment," an installation of 60 speakers mounted on two walls in the gallery that Hackett's works occupy. These speakers emit an ambient wash: Hackett's wall text explains this 6-minute loop as "Cicada sounds that have been isolated and reconstructed into a synthetic dialogue between individuals and the group," but it sounds more like a work of extreme minimalism that might have been put out by Bernard Gunther's Trente Oiseaux label in the mid 1990s. These speakers are painted white to match the walls, which makes them look like insect cocoons trying to camouflage themselves in their environment. It's an effect that makes you want to grab one off the wall, as if an empty cicada shell left behind after molting, but you can't.

Sight, sound, and touch fuse together in Hackett's blithe "Polar Subwoofer," a fur-covered audio speaker emitting rumbling low tones calibrated to a polar bear's heart rate "during a state of carnivore lethargy." Lie upon it at your own peril, for its so comfortable and hypnotic that it almost lulls you into sleep.

All three works are somewhat affably interactive, but consider what Hackett does in each of these pieces. He focuses his viewers on some natural phenomena, but does it through a purely technological means. That the means tend to resemble home electronics--the subwoofer and multi-channel speaker setup of home entertainment system, headphones and light therapy of a depressive mood disorder--amplifies Hackett's subtle insinuation that these devices are how we interact with the natural world, that it's been bent to accommodate our lifestyles. It's an idea reinforced in Hackett's video installation "Captive Habitation," where a single screen is divided into six parts. A single animal occupies each area--an elephant, a panda, a simian of some sort, an orangutan, a seal, a leopard or some other big cat--solitary or pacing back and forth in some zoo environment. Bars or barriers aren't viewable; instead, the video frame becomes the cell. On the accompanying headphones, Hackett combines the animals' sounds into a single track, turning wild animals' disorienting noises into a solitary iPod environment--in effect abstracting the already artificial zoo experience into an even more easily digestible A/V feed: nature as progress has tamed it. (BM)

Jessie Lehson

In stark contrast to many of the Sondheim exhibition's multi-sensory works, a number of which incorporate sound and video, Jessie Lehson's minimalist, yet naturalist aesthetic comes as a welcome respite. Uniting two seemingly incongruous schools of thought, Lehson works almost entirely from handmade natural materials and is as painstaking in her overall process as she is in her construction. With an almost obsessive attention to the precision of line, repetition of form, and purity of elements, Lehson's works function as a meditation for both artist and viewer.

Upon entering her portion of the gallery, you are introduced to what is perhaps the most important facet to her overall work: her handmade materials. Reverently arranged and presented in an enclosed glass box, her windy branches of handmade charcoal and rolled logs of soil pastel exist almost as miniature sculptures, yet each small object itself embodies her creative impetus. Following a philosophy the artist describes as akin to the slow-food movement, Lehson avows that the creation of a work begins not with the application of materials, but in their manufacture.

Consciously evoking associations with both the spiritual traditions of Buddhist mandalas and Native American healing sand paintings, "Grounding II" is a massive installation of sifted dirt meticulously applied to the museum's carpeted floor in four perfectly mirrored rectangles. Although it could easily overwhelm due to its sheer size and rigid minimalism, "Grounding's" inherent ephemeral nature and organic color scheme ultimately combine to create a soft, inviting, and possibly healing atmosphere and meditative viewing experience.

Environmental not only in its earthly materials but in its enveloping size, "Grounding" is equally impressive for its remarkable composition. Without a trace of the artist's hand, each rectangle sits with stoic precision atop its precarious surface, but even without a visible identifier of the artist's presence, as with all of her work , "Grounding" remains deeply personal for its chosen (and in this case, sole) material. Made from varying shades of red earth, each rectangle is imbued with the very mineral from which Lehson, herself, suffers a deficiency. Thus, in "Grounding" as in all of her works, the artist employs her primary material not only for its visual effects, but for its cathartic properties.

Hanging on the wall opposite "Grounding II", Lehson's unframed dirt drawings provide an intriguing insight into her creative development and process. Like "Grounding," the dirt drawings are highly fragile, and left unprotected by the division of glass between artwork and viewer, serving as a poetic reminder of our collective environmentalist responsibility. But unlike her large installation, each drawing, constructed out of multiple squares of hand-torn paper and drawn from handmade soil pastels, displays more overt signifiers of the artist's presence. Here you find Lehson not only in her choice of materials, but in the roughly torn corners of each paper square, and the obsessive repetitions of gestural mark making and replicated shapes. Over and over, she traces the lines to sketch out her autobiography and in viewing it, you join her in meditation. (Kate Noonan)

Molly Springfield

In the 2008 Sondheim Finalists Exhibition, Washington-based Molly Springfield installed her painstaking work--hand-drawn copies of photocopied books' pages, such as multiple translations of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu--as multiple installations in cases and mounted on the wall. It was a curious design choice, as it emphasized the pieces as objects, when Springfield's enterprise explicitly questions the finality of objects--and, by extension, ideas. Her installation of her work in this year's finalists' exhibition better spotlights her work's intellectual thrust and broad scope.

In the first gallery of this exhibition Springfield has installed 28 of her drawings in a series of seven exhibition cases that run left to right, spilling from gallery's left wall and continuing along the wall facing you as you enter. This installation, titled "Translation," contains a sizable hunk of the first chapter of Perdu's first book, "Swann's Way," in various English translations. For each of the 28 drawings, Springfield photocopied a pair of pages from a book and reproduced those pages by hand--handwritten notes, varying typefaces, imperfect photocopying smudges, and all. These may be some of the same objects that Springfield displayed last year, but this installation spotlights the inherent narrative trajectory of this project: that what Springfield does is as much a time-based process as it is a reproductive process. Springfield isn't merely turning to pre-existing imagery as a source material. She's exploring how language--and the myriads of ideas and emotions expressed by language--changes through contact with people, technological processes, and over time. That she chooses to explore such a theme via a work of written literature that has been translated into English by multiple translators and edited in various editions--and an epic work written in a rather florid French that explores the ephemerally elusive nature of memory at that--invites a welcome sense of play to Spingfield's body of work, which runs the risk of feeling purely academic at first.

Springfield successfully torpedoes that coldly intellectual suspicion in her accompanying mixed-media installation "A Brief Note on the Translation." Consider it the messy background and mutating byproduct of her meticulous manual copies of mechanical copies of text. Here, Springfield includes multiple edits/versions of one of her own written introductions to her project, which explains and clarifies--and then re-explains and re-clarifies--her process, plainly showing how her own interpretation of what she does mutates over time. Assembled around these three intros are various Proust-related and her Proust-project related ephemera: a photocopy of an English translation of Walter Benjamin's introduction to his German translation of Baudelair's Tableaux Parisiens, a page from the April 6, 2008, edition of the New York Times Magazine offering a Madelaine cake recipe (the biscuit that infamously midwives one of Proust's memories in Perdu), and, just to be cheeky, a photocopy of an illustration of a Madelaine--a representation of a representation of an object--among other items. Also included: what looks like a hand-drawn copy of a photocopied image of nothing--i.e., a machine scanning itself. It looks like a blank slate, but it nicely articulates Springfield's coy endeavor: a bluntly literal example of how to see what lies where there's supposedly nothing there. (BM)

Karen Yasinsky

Informed by classic French cinema, Karen Yasinsky has a somewhat formulaic, though typically successful, method of presentation. Often Yasinsky uses drawings and hand-drawn and stop-motion animations to re-interpret a single movie; in this year's Sondheim finalists' exhibition, she explores Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar. Including three animations--two hand-drawn and a 9-minute stop-motion animation with dolls--and a series of drawings all based on the movie, Yasinsky reinvents the characters and plot multiple times within her installation.

The first room of Yasinsky's exhibition space contains her drawings and two animations, each hand drawn at 12 frames per second. The drawings are broken into two groupings, the mood and style changing drastically from one set to the next. In the larger, more prominently displayed drawings, brightly colored inks burst from behind the centrally placed graphite and colored pencil figures, ultimately washing the figures out. In these images, Marie and Balthazar are displayed, absurdly and alternately, with a cowboy character and a cartoon reproduction of Mr. Magoo. Somewhat unimpressive in their raw, almost unfinished rendering and without reference to a greater narrative or climax (due to their similar compositions and backgrounds), the images seem to be more studies for an animation than finished works in their own right. Making up for this shortcoming, however, are three smaller drawings on the rear wall, which are more carefully stylized and maintain an allegorical attention to color: Balthazar is depicted with silver details, while Marie is illustrated in reds.

The two hand-drawn animations, "Marie" and "Enough to Drive You Mad," are sound tracked by local musicians Dan Breen and Tom Boram of Snacks. In the three and a half minute "Marie," the girl appears as a simple, though strikingly accurate, line drawing, looking off into the distance as her lips move. Yasinsky examines the ambiguous psyche of the quiet protagonist: The image and accompanying music begin cleanly and classically, the track opening with strings and piano over a quiet, French monologue. Together, they dissipate into visual and audio noise; the portrait becomes pixilated into a grid of dots, colors flash and invert while the music becomes discordant and shrill. "Enough To Drive You Mad" is a four-minute loop that begins with Marie innocently petting her donkey and melts into a trippy, psychedelic narrative that reintroduces the cowboy and Magoo.

Probably most reliant on knowledge of Bresson's original movie, Yasinsky's stop-motion animation "I Choose Darkness" focuses on the Magdalenian parallels of Marie's character through her relationship with the saintly donkey Balthazar and the male characters in the movie. Bresson is known for his reference to actors as models, and has very little dialog in his film, which relies heavily on the subtleties communicated through facial expressions and body language. Rising to the challenge of translating ambiguous emotions through dolls, Yasinsky manages to create a similarly mysterious scenario in which Marie's affection for Balthazar is obvious while her impetus for exposing herself to abusive interactions is unclear.

While film is an inspiration for Yasinsky, the resultant art is all her own. Forcing the lengthy classic concisely into the contemporary gallery setting, Yasinsky creates pieces that have a voice of their own, while stroking the ego of gallery-going film aficionados. Her insights into the characters, creative explorations, and exaggerations of plot demonstrate a love for the source material, coupled with a practiced removal that allows her to dissect it with a compelling and focused panache. (Alex Ebstein)

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