It's always refreshing to have an outside view of the forest, one that tries to find a pattern in the trees. Maryland Art Place's annual critics' residency provides such an opportunity by bringing in critics from elsewhere to work with aspiring writers, to look at local art and to select some for a show called "Critics' Picks," accompanied by the critics' essays.
This year's critics are two writer/curators, Lee Fleming of Washington and Coco Fusco of New York. Their essays accompanying the just-opened show, taken together, suggest some characteristics of the local art scene:
Baltimore, the critics find, is somewhat conservative in its approach; our art tends to be individual rather than collaborative, stimulated more by private than by public concerns; our artists tend to be indifferent to the latest trends and to deal with timeless rather than timely issues -- identity, gender, life and death, spirituality, etc.
The show the critics have chosen by and large bears them out, and also proves to be one of the best gallery shows of the year. It's consistently interesting, it brings together familiar and not-so-familiar artists, and while not quite a theme show, it does revolve around the idea of identity.
In that sense it occupies somewhat a middle ground. There's no art for art's sake here, and not much current social issues art, either, and what there is -- Madenney Fielding Carlisle's "Lit'l Sister Spike" about drugs, or Dorcas B. Craybill's "Quilt Patch: Radioactive Basket" about toxic waste -- looks a bit out of place in the context of art that's at once more individual and more universal.
What could be more of both than Jann Rosen-Queralt's "Reservoirs and Windows"? Actually a record of an installation at Woodlawn Cemetery, its plastered-up books speak of the worst aspect of death: the loss of a mind. Kim Manfredi's "Mermania" is a fairy tale about, literally, a fish out of water seeking to return to its element. Interestingly, this mermaid reflects modern humanity's sense of having little or no control over its destiny.
Mary Kunaniec Skeen's "Dream Child (The Nightmare Bled of Its Fury)," Bruce Widdows' "Device for Erasing Memories," Maria Sanz's "Charles Baudelaire," Craig Cahoon's "Toad" and Allen Linder's "Man With Sphere" all deal in some way with memory -- individual, collective, cultural -- and with connection or disconnection among past, present and future.
Christine Langr's "Poor Box and Candle Rack," Osvaldo Mesa's "Untitled," Breon Gilleran's "Alpha" and in its own way George Chang's charming "Flying Bats" deal with the creation, transformation, decay and death of religion, myth, ritual.
No show of this scope could reflect all the city's art, and surely this one wasn't meant to. But as a show about an aspect of the local scene, it makes you think about its art individually and cumulatively.
Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.
When: Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Call: (410) 962-8565.