Talk radio listener takes matters into his own hands

BMA: Postcards showing one of Andres Serrano's more controversial paintings inflame sensibilities.

Fine Arts

November 13, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Baltimore Museum of Art was a hot topic on the talk-radio circuit last week, when callers to WCBM 680 on the AM dial expressed outrage over postcard sales of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ in the museum gift shop.

The hoopla apparently was sparked by an item posted on the Web site of the Catholic League, a conservative advocacy group, which chided the museum for selling postcard images of Serrano's notorious photograph of a crucifix dipped in urine.

The Web item noted that the museum recently removed a painting by artist Chris Wool entitled Terrorist after some visitors complained they were offended by the work. The Catholic League wondered why similar complaints hadn't been lodged against the Serrano postcard.

By the end of the week, an irate listener had gone into the museum shop and bought all 13 of the remaining Serrano postcards (at 75 cents each) so the museum couldn't sell any more. (The museum has no plans to restock the controversial image.)

In response, BMA Director Doreen Bolger issued a statement that managed to cite the First Amendment, America's entry into World War I and the lost ancient city of Antioch - without ever once mentioning the words "Serrano"; "Piss Christ" or "gift shop."

But not all of the BMA's additions are as controversial. The museum recently installed a work by African-American artist Kara Walker in its New Wing for Contemporary Art. The piece, titled Salvation, is a combination video projection and wall sculpture featuring one of the artist's signature, cut-out figures. No word on what, if anything, the Catholic League has to say about Salvation.

A good feeling

"Sensory Perception" is the clever title of an exceptionally clever show of works by fabric artist Sonya Clark at Galerie Francoise in Lutherville.

Like her previous show of African-inspired headwear a few years ago - when Clark used colorful scarves, hats and other accessories as metaphors for the body, ancestry, healing and religious ritual - most pieces in the current exhibit straddle the line between object-oriented and conceptual art.

This time, her beaded metaphors still involve the body, but are drawn from the immediate, tactile experiences associated with skin, eyes, hands and hair.

In Ocular, the artist joins two facing pairs of wire-rimmed granny glasses with connecting lengths of fabric tubing that force the wearers to look directly into each other's eyes. Likewise, in Stethoscope, Clark has sewn two cup-shaped microphones to opposite ends of a fabric tube. Instead of one person listening to another's heart through an earpiece, the two hearts "listen" to each other.

Several pieces in the show involve this kind of clever wordplay - "eye to eye" and "heart to heart," etc. Other paired objects include fingerprints, taste buds and a hilarious evocation of a beauty salon tete-a-tete between gossiping hairdressers.

This is a very funny show that also manages to be deeply thoughtful about the fragility and tenderness of human relationships.

"Sensory Perception" runs through Nov. 30. Galerie Francoise is at Greenspring Station, 2360 W. Joppa Road. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays noon to 4 p.m. Call 410-337-ARTS.

Celebrating nature

The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington is showing "In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places," an exhibit of contemporary landscape photography that runs through Dec. 31.

There's not a lot to say about the show, except to note that these sure are some pretty pictures. Nothing surprising there; this is, after all, a show commissioned by a preservation group, and the pictures are intended to advertise the idea that nature needs to be protected.

So the Nature Conservancy, which sponsors conservation efforts around the globe, asked 12 well-known photographers to produce personal essays on a dozen endangered spots around the world.

The only twist was that many of the artists are best known for something other than nature photography. William Wegman, for example, is famous for photographing his beloved pet Weimaraners in wacky settings. But the dogs seem to fit right in with the estuary at Maine's Cobscook Bay, where Wegman posed them placidly sunning themselves among the area's red anemone and rocky beaches.

Similarly, celebrity portraitist Annie Liebovitz photographed the misty Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York with the same breathless adoration she brings to her pictures of actresses and rock stars. The pictures are lovely, but you can't help wondering whether her apparently fervid enthusiasm is genuine.

To my eyes, the best pictures were by photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, who more or less ignored the landscapes of Eastern Shore Virginia and Alaska's Pribilof Islands and concentrated instead on the people - who, after all, are just as integral to the environment as rocks and trees.

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