The Maryland Invitational started at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1988 as the successor to the biennial for regional artists, struggled on for a couple more years and then was allowed by the museum to die quietly.
Its place has now been taken by "Maryland by Invitation." There is a real difference. The Invitational artists were chosen by a complicated process including nominations from around the state. "By Invitation," the museum says, is to be a "series of curator's choice exhibitions . . . to be scheduled at periodic intervals." In plain terms, the museum didn't like the Invitational process, and thinks its own curators can put together better shows.
Fair enough, but you would think they might inaugurate this new format with the announcement of a schedule, wouldn't you? No such commitment is forthcoming. BMA director Arnold Lehman would only say yesterday that there is "no specific plan for a certain time frame" but "our hope is to be able to do this every year."
At any rate, "by Invitation" begins with an effective show that brings together the work of Jeff Gates and Lisa Lewenz, two artists who combine photography with text, but with quite different results.
The show consists of selections from a series of each artist's work. Gates' is called "From a Series of One Acts . . ." and consists of photographs of American people, places and things either with superimposed text by the artist or, in some cases, with words as part of whatever was photographed (on the side of a truck, for instance, or on a gravestone).
According to Gates' statement, the series as a whole is about "power and control." This group of 28 images adds up to a commentary, often ironic, on both individual life and society.
One, for instance, shows a group of gravestones in a cemetery. One in the front row says "Mary P His Wife" with birth and death dates. But none of the other stones has anything but a little number on it. Thus the consequences of giving up control over one's identity, or part of it, to someone else.
Other images comment on the capitalist economic system, war and the military, etc. Although the subject matter changes, the general impression left by the series is that both as a people and individually we have less actual power, and control over our lives, than we think.
Perhaps these are best summed up by one that shows a Civil War monument, under which Gates has added the words "Some are born with it. Some seek it. Some are destroyed by it." This can be interpreted to refer to all kinds of power, from sexual to military, but the irony here is that we see a monument to those now dead, who have no power at all.
One of the interesting aspects of this show is that while the cumulative effect of Gates' series is basically pessimistic, that of Lewenz's is basically optimistic. She takes big white cards, with one black letter on each, to various groups, from children to issue activists. Each group then decides what to spell out with the cards, and Lewenz photographs them holding up what they want to say.
"We're Different, Aren't You?" asks a group attending the Little People's national convention. "Responsibility of Freedom" says a group of Agnes Scott College students attending a pro-choice rally. A group of art students from St. Mary's College of Maryland apparently couldn't agree on any particular expression, so they held up several question marks.
Lewenz's series is essentially about people who think they can make a difference and are trying to. Gates' says pretty much the opposite. Gates' work has more punch than Lewenz's, but together they get "Maryland by Invitation" off to a good start. So let's keep it going -- OK, BMA?