On the verge of understanding

Art: Comprehension sometimes lingers outside the realm of `Visibility.'

March 28, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Lately I've been re-reading Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett's seminal 1925 essay "The Dehumanization of Art," in which he argued that modern art had divided the public into two classes: those who comprehend it and those who don't.

For the latter, the philosopher had little use. Ortega was an avowed elitist who believed that art was too important to be entrusted to the common man.

He maintained that in matters of art (no less than in politics) only the cream of the crop was fit to rule, for without direction from its elite, society would lapse into barbarism and chaos.

I'm always awed by the finality of such judgments. And I've often wondered whether, were he alive today, Ortega might cut us ordinary mortals a break by adding a third category: those who truly would like to understand contemporary art, but don't always quite get it.

Such musings are occasioned by "Visibility," the intriguing, yet in places frustrating, group show at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum running through April 12.

The exhibit presents three contemporary artists - Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Sam Christian Holmes and Miguel Rio Blanco - whose work deals in some way with the themes of marginalization and disenfranchisement.

Campos-Pons is a Cuban exile living in the United States; Holmes is an African-American sculptor who teaches in Washington, and Rio Blanco is a Spanish-born photographer and filmmaker who makes his home in Rio de Janeiro.

For each of them, art is a highly personal response to the plight of people who have been victimized by social, political and economic injustice - those who, in author Ralph Ellison's great metaphor, have been rendered "invisible."

For Campos-Pons, identity lies in the deep well of memories and associations that connect her to her childhood in Cuba, years marked by intense privation but also by a great sustaining love from her grandmother and sisters.

The artist re-creates the aura of that period in a haunting, large-scale video installation called "Meanwhile, The Girls Were Playing," in which images from her past flicker across the darkened walls and floor of the gallery as a tape plays sounds of women singing, laughing and cooking. Through a strange alchemy of audio-visual imagery and symbolic objects - Campos-Pons has strewn the dimly lit space with decorative fabrics, glassware and jewelry - the artist reintegrates her past with the present, and makes visible what normally is hidden.

By contrast, Holmes' designs are directed toward the anonymous travelers who suffer the drab enclosures and shabby architecture of the standardized passenger shelters Baltimore has built along its well-traveled bus routes.

These aggressively impersonal structures seem to rob the people who inhabit them of color, light and human dignity. Holmes' response was to redesign the shelters in a whimsical Afro-Nouveau style that makes each seat a tiny throne. (One of the shelters is planned for the Howard Street stop opposite Lexington Market.) By such means does the artist insist on the nobility of the humblest among us.

I confess I had trouble making sense of Rio Blanco's large color photographs of Rio's tawdry street life, which seem to be neither straight documentary nor pure art photography. For instance, one picture of a homeless man sleeping on the street is almost romantic.

The blurring of such distinctions is admittedly part of the artist's strategy: to look unflinchingly at extreme poverty and violence without either sentimentalizing them or reducing them to aesthetic cliches.

Still, I'm not sure the photographer has achieved this delicate balance. The photographs are a little too painterly, too self-consciously lush and seductive to quite convince me that the artist isn't simply making poverty decorative. His pictures almost make you forget why the suffering masses have been rebelling for lo these past 200 years.

Or maybe I just don't get it. Ortega, where are you now when we need you?


Where: The Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St.

When: Through April 12

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Tickets: $3.

Call: 410-783-5720

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