The six artists vying for the $30,000 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize have in common an ability to provoke. Intriguing spins on familiar sights and common objects ask the viewer to ponder perspective and meaning; in one of the rooms is a hypnotic journey into the past that raises still more questions.
That journey comes from John McNeil, who earned a graduate degree from Maryland Institute College of Art, where he is now on the faculty of the photography department. He specializes in exploring abandoned spaces. The photographs and video displayed here were shot in the long-empty buildings of a psychiatric hospital in Sykesville.
The material could not look or feel more haunted. The still photos are compelling enough, especially the view of a ghostly hall where movies were once shown. A stark close-up of a door gives one pause — a sign in block letters reads "Universal Antidote."
McNeil's 24-minute video on a large screen exerts an even more powerful pull, lingering over the decaying rooms, the shreds and patches left behind; a soundtrack of ambient noises and snippets from vintage recordings effectively supports the imagery.
If the power of McNeil's work comes partly from imagining the lives that passed through those now-desolate spaces, the power of Matthew Janson's work comes partly from imagining creatures, human or alien, that might flesh out the sculptural, skeletal forms he has created.
The Baltimore-based Janson, another MICA graduate degree-earner, uses myriad bits of commercial products packed into each piece, from shredded currency and fake fur (in "put a straw under baby") to a fast-food restaurant cup and bedsprings (in "ark").
There is humor in these pieces, ribbing our consumer society and all the stuff we pack into it. But there's gravity, too, as in "dead woman in a green room (ghost)," complete with a cane resting against what could be shrunken, stooped remains.
Renee Stout's contribution adds yet another ghostly element to the exhibit. Her fascination with the spirits and potions of New Orleans culture is reflected in a collection of atmospheric paintings, prints and sculptural works.
Among the intriguing items is "The House of Chance and Mischief." Here, the Washington-based artist and teacher has fashioned a vibrant altar of strange icons and charms, beckoning the gambler to a place "where anything can happen and does."
Lots of things are happening even in the most minimal sculptures of Jon Duff, yet another MICA graduate-degree earner. "Orange Drink" is just that — a glass containing an orange substance sitting on a white table that rests on a loud blue carpet — but it's whimsical, quizzical and magnetic all in one.
In "Closet Maid," household objects rest on metal shelves. Thick paint, as if still in the process of spilling from shelf to shelf, covers most of the items, adding a layer of organic animation.
Lisa Dillin's sculptural creations are more static, but they have fascinating ways of coming to life. "Natural Lighting Emulator II," for example, turns vertical blinds into a backlit, abstract canvas.
The Bangladesh-born Hasan Elahi, who teaches at the University of Maryland, mistakenly landed on a terrorist watch list years ago and has openly documented his every move since. The bold chromogenic prints and videos in this show come with a hint of eavesdropping and security cameras, a sense of the artist watching the people watching us.
The Sondheim Artscape Prize, raised from $25,000 to $30,000 for 2012, will be announced at the BMA on July 14. The other five artists will receive a $2,500 honorarium, thanks to the establishment this year of the M&T Bank Sondheim Finalists' Awards.
If you go
"Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2012 Finalists" runs through July 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.