Every year at this time, the Baltimore Museum of Art showcases the finalists for the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. The exhibits invariably reveal "energy, imagination and engagement with the significant issues of our time," says BMA director Doreen Bolger.
That description, especially the "significant issues" part, seems doubly fitting for the 2011 finalists, whose work is on display at the museum through Aug. 7.
The collection includes hard-hitting, uncompromising photos from the war in Afghanistan by Washington-based Louie Palu. Photographs taken in Spain by another Washington-based artist, Mark Parascandola, confront the topics of the legacy of developers. A video by Baltimore's Stephanie Barber, using old photos of nameless men, creates a haunting poem about identity and loneliness.
Rounding out the exhibit are bold abstract sculptures of Baltimore-based Rachel Rotenberg that incorporate wood and vine; and a wall-sized installation of cellphone photos by another Baltimore-based artist, Matthew Porterfield, who also created a kinetic video out of those images.
This is the sixth year of the $25,000 Sondheim Prize, produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and given to an artist in the Greater Baltimore region. The 2011 winner will be announced by a jury on July 9.
The BMA's exhibit of the 2011 finalists is likely to spur plenty of comment. Palu's work, in particular, promises to generate strong reactions.
"Right after [President Barack] Obama talks about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, you can go to an art museum and see photographs of the actual war," Palu says.
The artist spent the better part of five years in Afghanistan, photographing a war that seems to have been out of sight, out of mind for many Americans. The images Palu captured will put it right back front and center.
"There are a number of complicated factors about showing images of horror and war," he said. "It is an extremely difficult environment to work in. You are near death all the time, the smell of blood every day. You name it, I saw it."
The compelling composed photographs show gravely wounded soldiers and civilians, a horse killed by an improvised explosive device, bloodied limbs and blood-stained floors, a bound and gagged prisoner.
In one shot, a civilian is being searched, his arms outstretched. Only one eye of the confronting soldier can be seen, but it is clear that both eyes are staring intently into the man's face as if trying to read his soul, while the hands determine the risk posed by the body.
"My goal or mission is not to have people crying, but to stir discussion," Palu says. "I want people to feel what it's like on the front lines."
Palu's photographs have two-edged power, given their subject matter and their remarkable sense of structure and color. The same can be said of Parascandola's work, a series of photos taken in Almeria, a desert landscape in Spain.
"My mother's family is from there, and I've been traveling there since I was a kid," Parascandola says. "Almeria has gone through various boom and bust cycles. Throughout the 20th century, it has been one of the poorest regions in Europe."
The photographer found in that area the material to evoke "the idea of a ghost town."
Some of the ghostly images are housing developments that were started during a boom cycle, but left unfinished or abandoned as the economy soured. The photos create striking geometrical shapes etched against the barren landscape.
The other photos in Parascandola's Sondheim entry are of movie sets used for "spaghetti Westerns" filmed in that part of Spain decades ago. These ghost towns "were never inhabited, of course, but they have been abandoned and left in the desert," says the artist, whose work speaks to multiple issues while providing vivid structure and color.
Structure and color are primary forces in Rotenberg's sculpture.
"They're come from stories I miraculously create — well, to me, it feels miraculous," the artist says. "Then I draw them until I get to the place where it just says 'build me.' "
What springs from her stories-turned-drawings are wooden sculptures crafted into curving, sensual shapes that are then painted.
The abstract items include "Limn," a large rounded, vessellike object made from cedar two-by-fours and a thick vine; the piece seems to sink into a pedestal. The smell of the cedar comes through as you get close to look inside the sculpture, which gives it a kind of animated presence.
"I wanted pieces that would talk to each other, and, hopefully, to you," Rotenberg says.
The installation by Porterfield, creator of the independent film "Putty Hill," takes up one wall, where six dozen 20-by 30-inch cellphone pictures form a large quiltlike work. On the opposite wall is a monitor showing a video montage of the same pictures and additional ones.
"All of the photos were taken over the last year," says Porterfield. "It is a personal work in that they are all scenes from [my] daily life … They celebrate the everyday and offer a way of seeing and making sense of the world."
The video, using a flicker technique, intensifies and animates the images, setting up a relationship with the stills on the other wall.
Around the corner is another monitor, this one showing two rough six-minute videos by Barber.
"Bust Chance" uses found footage of a Chinese audience at an acrobatic show. "It's a very collage-ish film and it's about subverting expectations," Barber says.
The other video, "Dwarfs the Sea," also uses found images — photos of men, mostly African-American and Arab, showing little expression.
"I'm not sure what these pictures were," Barber says. "Maybe ID pictures. I am imagining these men were sailors, immigrants. They have an existential loneliness, a lonely so huge it dwarfs the sea."
A verbal description written by Barber and intoned by a mechanical voice-over provides summations of each man, creating a bittersweet montage.
In addition to those videos, Barber will be making fresh ones throughout the Sondheim exhibit. She plans to develop a concept, film it and process it each day and have it showing on a monitor the next day. She will add musical soundtracks to some, computer animation to others. Passers-by will often be invited to be in the films.
"I will be inspired by whatever happens," Barber says.
The idea of fresh art being created daily adds yet another intriguing dimension to an already lively exhibit.