In an age in which the information revolution bombards us with more than we can take in, and traditional values are increasingly challenged, it's harder to know who we are and where we stand in relation to the rest of the world.
William Larson, head of the graduate department of photography at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, is a conceptual artist who in his latest series of works, called "Theatre du Monde" (at Maryland Art Place), explores the increasing complexity of perception using the media of photography and words.
By combining straightforward, sometimes familiar images in confusing ways, then adding texts that relate to them obliquely, Larson effectively demonstrates how old ways of thinking are not adequate, and how, in his own words, the individual needs to "reorganize his or her thoughts at a higher level of complexity."
In the work numbered 7 at MAP -- they are all untitled -- we are given the familiar self-portrait of American 18th-19th century artist Charles Willson Peale raising a curtain on his well-known museum in Philadelphia, while beside him lie his palette and brushes. Superimposed on this are a television screen showing a close-up face, and a text that relates to training by repetition among animals and humans.
In the old days, this work appears to tell us, we learned about the world through arts and sciences in simpler ways -- from teachers whom we trusted. Today, the media bring us a barrage of often conflicting information; we are in danger of robotically accepting it all and thinking about none of it unless we search through the material for a kernel of truth.
But there are advantages to the modern way. Before, we may have had one teacher and he may have been wrong. Now, we have many sources and can decide, if we take the trouble, what we think of each.
In number 2, an apartment building tumbles into a mass of rubble on one side of the picture, a child swings before a close-up of the moon on the other, and in the text two men talk: "1st man: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 2nd man: The seed money came first."
Science and technology are destroying the world that we have known and depended upon; that's because we use them in old, exploitative ways. If we're to use them in new, creative ways, we must learn not simply to ask the old questions and get the old answers.
Larson seduces us into these works with his rich, voluptuous photography, and then presents us with fascinating challenges. This is a demanding, exciting exhibit.
Simultaneously on the second floor at MAP are three smaller shows, the best of which is "Holding Our Own." Curator Linda Reeves-Cook selected 15 rural women from Garrett County and asked each to place in a drawer of a piece of furniture things that were significant to her. A Bible, a child's doll, a pin, a photograph, whatever they wanted.
The results are interesting -- some of these women appear to reveal more of themselves than others, some seem more subjective and others more objective. But most interesting are the inevitable questions they raise in the viewer's mind: What would I choose? What would those things say about me? How honest would I be?
The juxtaposition of "Theatre du Monde" and "Holding Our Own" offers its own thoughts. These rural women value objects that speak of traditions -- home, family, work, religion -- while an urban artist says old ways of thinking are no longer operational and we must learn new ones.
Who's right -- or is it both? It is possible that together these exhibits teach that the individual must learn to master a more complex world in order to preserve his fundamental values; for if he allows himself to become overwhelmed and passive, then individual meaning will be destroyed.
What: "Theatre du Monde" and "Holding Our Own"
Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 West Saratoga St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through May 7
Call: (410) 962-8565