Take in the Sondheim finalists’ work showing how economic realities impact culture, skip the marketing panels

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Cheeny Celebrado-Royer’s work in the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists Exhibition. Credit: Tiffany N. Thompson from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

Cheeny Celebrado-Royer‘s motorcycle has a flat. Sure, the two-wheeled vehicle is constructed out of upcycled cardboard tape, and twine, but its rear wheel is toast. It’s not merely deflated, but the rim’s got a flat spot like it was carrying an oversized cargo and hit a pothole at speed. Cyclists, of the human- or machine-powered variety, will see that flat spot and internally groan. An ordinary flat tire is quick, easy and cheap to fix. A rim with a flat spot means replacing or rebuilding the wheel, an investment of time and money. And if the two-wheeled vehicle is your main form of transportation—or what you use to work—it’s not something you can put off.

This motorcycle appears as part of Celebrado-Royer’s installation Banal,” her entry into the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists exhibition currently on view at the Walters Art Museum. It’s also one of the first things you see when entering the exhibition galleries from one of two entrances (we’ll get to that second one shortly), and calibrates the brain for what you’ll encounter along the way.

Explorations of the cultural impacts of economic realities run through the work of all seven finalists: Negar Ahkami, Akea Brionne Brown, Celebrado-Royer, Schroeder Cherry, Phylicia Ghee, Jackie Milad and Stephanie Williams. How and why such concerns are expressed or articulated varies, but in the decade since the 2008 recession our regional artists—and the arts, in general, countrywide—have witnessed their communities constrict, be displaced and/or otherwise get entangled with the economic and political machinery of urban redevelopment. And we can’t separate those facts from where we’re encountering these works right now.

This 14th annual exhibition and prize, organized by the Baltimore Promotion and the Arts and awarded during the summer Artscape festival, has become one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premiere art events, with its $25,000 grand prize and $2,500 fellowships for finalists.

The judges will award the Sondheim Prize at the July 13 ceremony at the Walters, and the museum feels the need to remind you of itself throughout the exhibition. In addition to wall text panels that convey the usual artist statements and artwork identifications, each artist’s space in the galleries has included a text panel seemingly from the museum that invites gallery-goers to think about the contemporary artist’s work in relation to some larger context and, sometimes, to the Walters and its collection itself. I certainly understand the reasoning behind these—one of a museum’s purposes can be to provide context for looking and thinking—but throughout, these panels read like condescending gestures, Microsoft’s Clippy popping up to ask if you’d like some help writing a letter. These panels remind us that the Sondheim prize was created, in part, as PR for a city festival, amplifying the socioeconomic tensions percolating through these seven artists’ works.

Celebrado-Royer’s installation puts such forces front and center. Her wall text notes that Banal”—the Tagalog word for holy, pious, worthy of reverence—is informed by her time in her native Naga City, Philippines, the archipelagic country in the Pacific that annually endures typhoons, and how people make home repairs with available, scrounged materials. For this site-specific installation, two of her three gallery’s walls are painted cold blue, the third white, as if a cresting deep sea wave is engulfing the space.

Sheets of canvas or paper streaked with battleship gray are enclosed in plastic sleeves, taped or otherwise affixed to the walls in abstract, geometric patterns. A metal clamp holds a wood block a few feet off the ground, as if rising in water’s swell. A plastic bottle coated-slash-filled with concrete gray paint sits atop a pedestal and enclosed in cube like a religious relic. That motorcycle, or motorsiklo in Tagalog, has been a component of Celebrado-Royer’s vocabulary for some time now, a reminder that it’s low price point makes it the most popular mode of transportation in the Philippines.

Even before I cottoned to Celebrado-Royer’s backstory, what immediately sprang to mind was some of the site-specific installations created by New Orleans artists in the years following Hurricane Katrina, which connected how destruction and creation coexist. Celebrado-Royer’s “Banal” forces a similar issue, pointing out the perils of a city’s geography—being a port city on a large body of water—have been amplified by global capitalism’s larger geopolitical forces, and what matters depends on what you have on hand to survive. Just in case you’re missing the point, Clippy is there to encourage: “While viewing this work, the museum invites viewers to think about the relationship between the use of certain materials in art and perceived value as well as the ways in which art may be all around us in our everyday lives.”

D.C.-based interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Williams’ mixed-media installation and stop-motion animations are what you might first encounter when entering the exhibition from the opposite end. Her work evokes a different kind of cultural response: warm and fuzzy joy. Her “Things That Don’t Have Names” installation may conjure aromatic earthy, fleshy memories for anybody who grew up regularly going to what we typically call “ethnic grocery stores.”

Williams hangs fiber sculptures that evoke the varieties of sausage, offal and other fleshy bits you don’t find tastefully wrapped in plastic in the refrigerated meat aisle. In her wall text, Williams, who is of Filipino and African-American descent, notes that “Things” is “expressing identity’s mix as both a transformative and marginalizing force,” which she cheekily expresses here: A person with a hyphenated American identity can embrace the installation’s provocative nostalgia while recognizing that such cultural associations and knowledge is exactly what others them.

America’s sidelining of hyphenated identities also comes up in Williams’ two stop-motion animations: “PINOY/PLOY,” an exploration of food appropriation/stereotyping, and “Lingering Survival of the Unfit (with Preamble),” which shows how what we eat excludes other cultures just as written histories leave out other peoples. Kudos to Williams for refraining from mentioning the socioeconomic forces at work that often end up pooling hyphenated American people in the same part of a city: They’re the background awareness complicating the mirth her works evoke. Clippy adds: “While viewing this work, the museum invites viewers to think about the idea of intended awkwardness and the elements of art that are often used to define beauty and perfection.” Uh, OK. 

Akea Brionne Brown’s “Black Picket Fences.” Credit: Tiffany N. Thompson from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

How politics and economics sideline histories also comes up in the work of both Phylicia Ghee and Akea Brionne Brown. Baltimore native and interdisciplinary artist Ghee creates site-specific, performative work steeped in ritual and the body, and there’s an obvious spiritual element involved. The major work included here is video documentation of three performances titled “Intrepid,” two of which I caught at Area 405 in 2015. Each involves Ghee, sometimes accompanied by others, writing in a circular pattern on a large square piece of paper, her body smearing her charcoal writing and transferring smudges to her all-white ensemble. Sit with the videos for awhile, because the performance requires an investment in your time and mind.

For a better introduction to where Ghee is coming from, though, read “A Prayer for Us,” the white charcoal-on-black-paper piece she created for this exhibition. “Prayer” has the cadences of a ritualistic convocation. I’m not going to quote from it in full, but I do want to bring up one line: “Pulsing with life force, Àṣẹ.” I’m woefully undereducated in African philosophy, but I do think Ghee is alluding to the Yoruban concept of a force, which I only know about from cursory readings about Yoruban art. I’m ill-equipped to discuss the concept here, but just coming across it in the context of “Prayer” helped orient my brain in Ghee’s creative universe. Ghee’s wall text confides that she’s interested in “the intersection between the physical and the spiritual,” which, for me, extrapolate to something altogether more poignant: she’s centering belief systems that’ve been denigrated and monetized by colonialism. Clippy puts it in more modern lifestyle brand language: “While viewing this work, the museum invites viewers to think about ways in which we can heal and transmute both personal and collective trauma through artistic ritual practices.” (Stay with me here, the Clippy pile-on is going somewhere.)

Baltimore-based photographer, writer and researcher Brown’s “Black Picket Fences” spotlights overlooked histories with a knee-knocking confidence. This ongoing photographic and research project shows another side of racist redlining practices that segregated American cities over the 20th century: the middle-class black suburbs that emerged in the postwar years. The series’ title shouts out ethnographer Mary Pattillo’s pioneering work and book, “Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class,” and Brown’s photos, taken in Baltimore’s black ‘burbs, smartly, emotionally and beautifully complicate the racist notion of what a “black neighborhood” is. The installation includes research ephemera (from real estate guides, newspapers and the like) that anchors the public policy decisions and real estate practices that economically segregate the suburbs, and a video loop piece, in which a girl sings a chorus of the gospel song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” that effortlessly shatters your heart. (It’s totally OK if you don’t pay attention to what Clippy says here.)

Baltimore-born, northern Virginia-based Iranian-American artist Negar Ahkami intertwines Iranian ceramic and architectural traditions with Western modernism and street art to make works whose surface abundance can overshadow the intelligence she’s packing into her vocabulary. A few of her large-scale panels of gesso, acrylic and glitter on canvas—and certainly the disco-floor inspired lightbox-slash-carpet—initially distract the eye with their explosive colors and almost psychedelic designs, but resist the urge to seek visual cues to restless tension of a hyphenated identity in her collisions of the traditional Iranian and contemporary European and American ideas.

Ahkami strikes me as operating with a more deliberately impish streak in her work. Consider “The Taking,” a mixed-media piece of 29 objects that resembles the wall-mounted display of architectural objects in a museum. Such is the way we might typically encounter Iranian ceramics, as examples of a culture from some other place, that existed at some other time, that were brought over to wherever we are to be displayed as examples of those others. Ahkami’s faux ceramic shards don’t look ancient, though—in fact, they look like they’re not even trying to pretend to be weathered. If your dish cupboard fell off the wall, splintering your plates, bowls and cups, and you grabbed a few pieces and put them on the wall, it might resemble the array here (a sly reminder that we’re not looking at an ancient culture). Even better, one large fragment in the top left of the installation includes a crude rendering of the sitting 45th president signing some document—a snickering, middle-finger reminder that the racist-in-chief who signed the travel ban will, in fact, one day be history.

Artwork by Schroeder Cherry. Credit: Tiffany N. Thompson from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

Real people are central to the work of Schroeder Cherry, whose background in puppetry animates his mixed-media series. He includes examples from three of his “Portrait,” “Barbershop” and “Angel” series here, with the scenes from the barbershops being the one that more immediately drew me in. I’m not about to pretend I can expound on the role of the black barbershop and beauty salon in African-American culture and history; for the purposes of Schroeder’s works, know that he taps into this rich heritage with as much nuance and precision as a documentary photographer, despite flourishes of almost magical realism. Schroeder depicts the interactions of a barber with his client on panels, to which he attaches keys, chains, wire, a Skoal can and other objects. Each piece is “framed” by the excised corners of a wooden frames, and he adds painted details—playing cards, hand signals, combs—that bring sensory texture to the image. You can almost hear the convivial bustle of these slices of life, so disregard Clippy’s request to “to think about the types of people and places we hold important and the personal mythologies we use to guide our everyday behavior.”

Oh, Clippy: I’m not teeing off on these snippets simply because they’re asking for it. They’re an institutional marketing campaign masquerading as audience engagement, treating the finalists’ work like it needs to be qualified in order to justify its inclusion in such hallowed walls. Over the years, a few Sondheim finalists have creatively and insouciantly acknowledged their austere locations into their finalists exhibition, but this is the first time I can recall the museum feeling the need to insert itself so clumsily into the exhibition, especially given that their installation design teams work so closely with the artists themselves. 

Look, I know, I know, branding is as branding does in 2019, and I’m not trying to be juvenile and eye-poke a major Baltimore arts institution that I genuinely love and make frequent use of with its free admission, but every time I came across one of these panels I cringed in that way I did when the Sondheim was first announced (emphasis mine): “The main goal is to help a local artist and to give Artscape greater visibility,” former BOPA director Bill Gilmore told the late Sun critic Glenn McNatt in March 2006, when the award was first announced as a one-time grant to celebrate Artscape’s 25th anniversary.

In a follow-up piece published a week later, McNatt noted that BOPA hoped to award the prize annually, which “would be a good thing, because the most important effects of a prize such as the Sondheim award can only be felt over time,” he wrote, adding:

“If the Sondheim prize becomes an annual event, it will have a similar effect here. Yes, it will contribute, albeit indirectly, to the city’s redevelopment efforts by strengthening the bonds of community among the creative class. It’ll encourage the area’s best artists to stick around, perhaps participate in Artscape more often, and raise the bar for everything related to it.

Over the long term, the quality of locally produced work will tend to rise, which in turn will benefit all the exhibition venues in town, not just during Artscape but throughout the year.”

Question: Has it benefited all the exhibition venues in town throughout the year? Admittedly, that’s a tall order for any art prize and a precarious prediction given that the only people who predicted 2008’s economic fallout made money on it, but I would argue that Baltimore’s arts communities haven’t grown since the Sondheim’s inception.

I’m not talking about either the quantity of local artists nor the quality of their work; I’m talking about how economic constriction has impacted the infrastructure, venues, journalism and support systems that sustain the arts ecosystem. I mean, it’s not like our major institutions—ahem—are immune to such forces, so of course any opportunity to engage the gallery-going public must be seized upon. Sure, artists are figuring out ways to get through this crunch, only because they’ve always had to.

Which, for me, is what makes Jackie Milad’s work here such a devastating, detonating feat. Full disclosure: I am totally biased when encountering local artists whose work I have been looking at and thinking about for many years here in town, and Milad’s recent output—”Pyramids Fall Too” at Phoebe Projects in 2016; “The Thing is Close” with Cindy Cheng at School 33 in 2018—revealed an artist refining her personal vocabulary into such a richly political investigation of identity. So it was initially a bit shocking to see her four mixed-media drawings here, because for them Milad attacked her archive of work, cut, ripped and otherwise destroyed pieces, and collaged them onto unstretched canvases.

Artwork by Jackie Milad. Credit: Tiffany N. Thompson from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts

This act of self-cannibalization—because, plain and simple, that’s what is is—yielded psychologically complex abstract landscapes that are some of the boldest statements I’ve seen from her hands. The pink painted nail of a middle finger extends into a line that curls around a rake shape, which descends into a tongue-shaped smudge that seems to lap at the words that make up the work’s title: “Eres mucho”—you’re too much. Disembodied breasts hover above a gaggle of drifting eyes, an incomplete (border?) wall, and graffiti tag-like scrawl of “f— it” in Chaos Eyes.” This is defiant politicization of abstraction via personal identity in our age of austerity, gorgeously hung like sacred tapestries on the Walters’ hallowed walls. As for Clippy, who cares.



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