On my way to the Current Space to attend a Q&A for the unveiling of a new public art project initiated by Market Center CDC, I am lost.
As I negotiate rush hour traffic in my old Reeboks, too stubborn to look up directions, I suddenly spot Takia Ross’s stunning “Concrete Beauty” mural on the corner of Saratoga and North Howard Street. It is a lush portrait of a woman who seems to float above a sea of roses, some of which adorn her hair. It brings a much-needed breath of life to the gray misty night.
The project along Howard Street features six public installations by Baltimore artists: Takia Ross, Bryan Robinson, SHAN Wallace, You Wu, and duo Wickerham & Lomax.
At the Current Gallery Q&A, Ross addresses a packed gallery amidst camera clicks and light chatter while standing in front of a screen that flashes through all the different murals on a loop.
“I am a South Baltimore girl,” Ross proudly declares. “I’m a makeup artist, and a lot of times in the makeup industry a lot of people don’t think of makeup as art. They think of us as beauty providers or beauty service providers, and so I look at us as artists. It’s just that the face is our canvas.”
Ross explains that she created her piece in the concrete-and-brick basement of her building, where she was reminded of the neighborhood she grew up in.
“Sometimes it’s a little dilapidated,” she says. “Sometimes the buildings aren’t so pretty, and sometimes all we see is bricks, and sometimes we don’t see the beauty in some of our situations. But I want you to know that beauty is very concrete. It is something that is inside of you. You make it with your existence, with your appearance, with how you show up.”
“Concrete Beauty” highlights the subject’s beauty against a cinder block backdrop.
“So I painted her face, and we put stones on her and decorated the piece with roses, and I have roses coming up from the ground and it decorates our entire structure,” Ross says.
Opposite Ross’s piece on the same corner of North Howard and Saratoga is a kinetically charged creation by multimedia artist and educator Bryan Robinson titled “Crooked Smiles.”
Catching the viewer’s eye from blocks away is one giant head with Groucho Marx eyebrows, a nonchalant smile, and an afro that extends well beyond the main structure with ears jutting out on both sides. The eclectically delightful set of teeth are partially sourced from some busted up PVC tubes that were already there prior to the work being made.
Robinson explains to the crowd at Current Space that he painted over a picture of Downtown Baltimore to create a blank canvas. When he saw the broken PVC pipes on the bottom of the structure, he was inspired to incorporate them into his piece.
“I saw that as broken pieces and I decided to visualize that as a face,” he says. “A lot of my pieces are based off of conversations in people’s faces.”
J Cole’s song “Crooked Smiles” played in Robinson’s head and the pipes became crooked teeth for the person in his artwork.
Robinson also polled his Instagram followers about whether the subject’s head should don a fitted Orioles cap or an afro. In the end, the afro won, and Robinson built it with a plastic, weather-resistant foam core.
To the right one block is Mulberry and North Howard, a corner which hosts installations by artists SHAN Wallace and You Wu.
Wallace utilizes her signature collage approach, employing cut-up photo surrealism coupled with a multi-pattern backdrop. Two girls in dance attire stand in the foreground with their heads composed from multiple face shots.
Wallace, who has work displayed in galleries and collections throughout the world, has captured the attention of CNN, Italian Vogue, and Vanity Fair, just to name a few. She arrives at the Q&A rocking an orange knitted ski mask and talks in depth about her piece, “Twin Sisters Rehearse In Grandma’s Living Room.”
She tells Baltimore Fishbowl that she approached the piece casually, without any “propaganda” or “public message.”
“I just wanted to show something which to me is part of my everyday life,” Wallace says. “So you see two little girls who could be twins rehearsing in their grandmother’s living room. I was thinking of something that’s so Baltimore, thinking of family, thinking of what it means to be a young Black girl raised in a city.”
With heightened emotion in her voice, she takes a pause.
“As a photographer I’m seeing so many children that I photograph grow up,” she says. “I was thinking how can I give a lens to something that happens inside the home?”
If one looks closely at “Twin Sisters,” they can actually see a phone booth which has since been removed from the block. Wallace had randomly snapped a photo of it earlier in the pandemic when human subjects were a bit harder to come by. The real payphone is no longer there, but it remains as a sort of ghost in the “Twin Sisters” piece.
Wallace’s art is focused on depicting people in real time with no agenda or filter.
“I’m not one to tokenize people, or hit the marketing points that most people expect you to hit,” she says. “I am really trying to show everyday life and everyday people.”
Artistic work in the commercial and editorial worlds can be draining, Wallace says, so it is important for her to set boundaries.
“I think the thing that I’ve taken away from all this is having real boundaries around who I wanna work with, what I wanna do, how far I wanna extend myself, and if the money is worth it…. The best thing and the bigger lesson is I don’t really bend unless I wanna bend,” she says.
On the opposite side of Wallace’s piece is You Wu’s “Other Worldly.”
The piece depicts two hands, each with a hold in their center, through which a thread runs and forms the shape of a heart. From farther away, the artwork looks like a nineties science book image of mitochondria.
“I chose crazy colors and patterns so at least the passersby would at least say ‘cool’ before they moved on, instead of being confused,” Wu tells Baltimore Fishbowl. “I of course intentionally planted details for the art nerds. If you stare at it long enough you will find a cat getting abducted by aliens.”
Wu says she wanted to make the artwork accessible to all viewers.
“I want to create something that doesn’t require much expertise to appreciate,” she said. “The work won’t be accompanied by a didactic panel nor an artist statement. Most people might just glance at it for a second and then continue with their business.”
But Wu’s art does explore social messages, even if that wasn’t the goal from the start.
“My work describes the overlooked violence in globalization, especially labor inequalities,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily feel pressured to create works regarding this topic. I became interested in the topic first then my art started to reflect my interest. And of course not all my creations are heavy. My sketchbook is filled with silly drawings.”
The corner of Franklin and Howard is shared by art duo Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax who, according to the piece of paper handed out to patrons at the door, are “new media artists focused on the impact of cultural practices and productions as formative structures on the individual and the collective.”
The two have the Current Gallery audience in stitches as they good-naturedly rib each other and complete one another’s sentences like old teammates.
Their contributions, Wickerham’s “Caught Up 2004” and Lomax’s “Truth Hurts 2004,” are an extension of a larger ongoing collaborative work that the two have been developing for some time.
Lomax’s piece looks like a manacled bird from the future, bedazzled in glass ornaments and bows, atop a chicken wire frame with splashes of blue and yellow, and some grapes fit for Tantalus.
“The piece comes from a series of works that center around the defense mechanisms and birthing approaches of various species and the appropriation of them as accessories to speak metaphorically about the guarding against harm and the act of caregiving,” Lomax explains to Baltimore Fishbowl.
In the bottom right hand corner of the mural is what looks like a big retail tag which reads “Arm Plate Accessory Featuring Frog Eggs and Couple Name Plates as Corrective Emotional Experiences.”
“This accessory in particular highlights my recent engagement as a corrective to the act of habitual dating,” Lomax says. “In the accessory’s tag a phrase is mentioned called the ‘corrective emotional experience,’ which is the reexposure of the patient, under more favorable circumstances, to the emotional situations which he could not handle in the past. This in some ways is what the practice of dating is. Then at some point one comes out on the other side seeing clearer with each iteration. Being able to put this phrase on the street was to give people some tie-ins to the personal and maybe a kind of tool they could use to consider their own emotionality.”
On the other side of the wall is Wickerham’s piece. It features a baby-like figure decked out in gold and black armor suspended by chains which are held by a battered arm (that cleverly appears as a bird from far away).
The ragged semi-gloved hand points to the left and is adorned with rings on two fingers. Off of the baby, photos hang – some with figures in different states of imprisonment – a pacifier, a gnarly hand, and other objects giving the feel of a rather baggage-laden crib mobile from another dimension .
Wickherman says he is interested in both the straightforward and the riddle.
“We build images largely through association of our own references as compared to something like building an image through metaphor,” he says. “This allows a work to stand on its own like the pieces on Howard while they are linked to a specific body of work from which they came. If a viewer discovers the larger network the meaning of the public work will change.”
Streets, while being a means of transportation and a place to walk, are also landscapes which we experience with all of our senses. What do we add to these places when we couple function with beauty?
“We add what isn’t supposed to be there, the surprise encounter…. There’s a man who’s recently been taping up Vanity Fair pages to the traffic boxes at certain intersections in Mt. Vernon. I love these! He makes me excited to be in the street. One of the best public artists working,” Wickerham says.
The Current Space has another group exhibition reception Friday, Jan. 13, called “Idle Times: Pop Disorder.” These new works will be up through Feb. 4.