This year, the 2017 and 2018 winners of the Baker Artist Awards were publically honored during a well-attended event at The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) on Wednesday, September 12th. In The BMA’s auditorium, there was a live performance by pianist Lafayette Gilchrist (Music); a poetry reading by Dora Malech (Literary); a screening of Margaret Rorison’s short film (Film/Video); and, in The BMA’s East Wing Lobby, live performances by Lisi Steossel (Performance). Gilchrist was out of this world, deftly alternating between jazz and more traditional forms like something off of Mingus Plays Piano. Rorison’s short film presents a series of black-and-white shots of offshore wind turbines accompanied by ominous ambient sounds, the message of which was not exactly clear. (Is she for or against renewable energy?) Malech’s poetry was rather academic, consisting of deconstructed idioms that she read in a rather flat tone. It was hard to make heads or tails of Steossel’s various performances, as they were fairly sporadic and difficult to contextualize.
Down the hall from the lobby, the Inter-disciplinary and Visual artists had their work installed in the Museum’s Benesch Gallery. Upon entering the space, you are immediately confronted with Amy Sherald’s two paintings, Well Prepared and Maladjusted and The Rabbit in the Hat, both from 2008. These bright portraits pop out of their frames, as the colorful palette of each scream for your attention. Yet the skin of Sherald’s subjects are rendered in grayscale while their attire is a confection of pastels. In Well Prepared and Maladjusted a young Black woman stares out at the viewer with a look that is somewhere between confrontational and resigned. Similarly, in The Rabbit in the Hat, a young Black man stares out at you, holding in his hands a hat from which a rabbit emerges. Perhaps this is humorous reference to the “magic trick” of illusionistic painting. Sherald was the subject of national attention earlier in the year when her painting, First Lady Michelle Obama, was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in February. Together with Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, the unveiling led to thousands of visitors to the Gallery over President's Day Weekend. Soon after Sherald’s portrait of the First Lady was displayed, a photograph of a young African-American girl staring at the painting went viral on social media.
Across from Sherald’s portraits, Abraham Burickson’s The Odyssey Works Box (2018) is exhibited. A flat-screen television with headphones invites viewers to watch a brief video outlining the piece, which looks like a bizarre, Charlie Kaufman-esque experience for one. Basically, The Odyssey Works Box is an ongoing art project that infiltrates the life of a single person at a time to create a custom-tailored, life-altering performance based on biographical information pertaining to the particular participant. It might last a day, a week, or a few months and intentionally blurs the lines between life and art. In 2013, The Odyssey Works created a months-long performance for Rick Moody, author of the 1994 novel The Ice Storm. Moody’s Odyssey included a fake children's book, introducing the themes of his performance, and a cello concert in a Saskatchewan prairie. Burickson’s work has a magical realist quality to it, combing a sort of administrative aesthetic with an otherworldly whimsy. A display case to the right of the video console showcases the different boxes and memorabilia from various Odysseys.
In the second room of the exhibition space, two large sculptures by David Marion defy easy categorization. Part sculpture, part installation (and equal parts captivating and disturbing) Marion’s work draws you in and repels you at the same time. In his Extinction Event (2018), which can be seen from far down the hall, a strange lifecycle seems to be at work: from a coffin-like black base filled with charred bits of wood, two large water coolers support more coffin-like containers full of rocks and grass out of which two ceramic tree trunks and brightly-colored paper butterflies ascend. The strange tableau encourages an interpretation of life and death through its suggestion of regeneration. Marion’s Fracking (2016), which hangs from the ceiling nearby, combines mechanical and organic forms in an unsettling way. Atomic shapes loom from above, while an obese clay torso, shorn of head and limbs, morphs into a giant steel drill from the waist down. If Burickson’s art is magical realist, then Marion’s is a nightmarish update of surrealism.
Last but not least, and as equally enchanting as the other works in the gallery, you find Sara Dittrich’s inter-disciplinary work. Her A Chorus of Footsteps (2018) is projected in a small screening room. This short animated film shows tiny clay feet marching across the screen in different patterns. First they march across from left to right; then another set makes its way up from below, perpendicularly intersecting the first line. Later still, the first line breaks off into a circle and so on. The visual progression of the feet is accompanied by the audio of rhythmic marching sounds. You almost want to make the association with the Third Reich (the marching) and maybe even the Holocaust (the mutilated feet), but Dittrich’s video is too playful for that grim assessment. If anything, the monotony of the marching feet lulls you into a dreamlike trance that is only broken when you find yourself laughing out loud at the playfulness of Dittrich’s work. Beyond the screening room, her Variations on Listening series is installed. These minimalist, monochromatic works are almost entirely two-dimensional, but upon closer inspection you discern a slightly sculptural quality. In shallow relief, tiny white ears are arranged across the square, all-white canvases. In some of these works, black thread stitches the ears together in different patterns. Again, you almost want to make a martial evaluation, but this time with America’s involvement in Vietnam and how certain units were reported to have cut off the ears of the Viet Cong they killed. But again, Dittrich’s whimsical style ultimately negates such an interpretation. Instead, a smile is brought to your face when you realize the patterns of white on white are made up of tiny ears!
Every year for the past decade, the Baker Artist Awards have recognized outstanding artists, musicians, and writers in the Baltimore area. Each year, one artist per discipline (Visual, Literary, Film/Video, Performance, Inter-disciplinary, and Music) receives a $10,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize. Of these artists, one is selected to receive the Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize of $30,000. The combined total of $40,000 makes this the largest art prize in the region. Further still, these artists get to exhibit, perform, read, and screen their work at The BMA. This is a big deal and the winners should all be very proud of their individual accomplishments. Congratulations to all the artists who won a Baker Artist Award these past two years!