Show puts `Hands' across Baltimore

Works go on walls, ride around on buses

November 21, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Thousands have no doubt seen them by now - those cryptic, billboard-sized images of a human hand fastened to the exteriors of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and the Contemporary Museum.

The creator of the series, Untitled (For Jeff), the late conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, left little indication as to how viewers should interpret his monumental black-and-white image. And, thanks to a new, related public-art exhibition, Hands On, which opens across Baltimore today, millions of drivers, bus riders and pedestrians may well come to regard the function of art itself as a similarly open proposition.

In conjunction with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the three museums recently asked 18 local artists to create original visual works that might, in the words of the Contemporary's Leslie Shaffer, "provide further access to Gonzalez-Torres [for] the community." Organizers asked for pieces that would incorporate images of a hand or hands. The works would also have to be adaptable to dimensions of 18-by-54 inches: That way, they could not only be displayed in the Contemporary Museum, where Hands On officially opens at 5:30 p.m. today, but also be reproduced on polystyrene and mounted on Maryland Transit Authority buses, where, for the next two months, they will be traveling the streets of Baltimore.

"It's a great opportunity to have your work seen outside galleries," says Juan Castro, who contributes an image from his photographic series, Sacred Sites. "I like the idea of everyday people, getting on the bus or walking down the street, just experiencing art."

Castro, a photography teacher at Towson High School, sounds almost like an acolyte of Gonzalez-Torres, the Cuban-born artist known for democratizing art by bringing it into public spaces. Gonzalez-Torres' work appeared in a variety of settings, including urban billboards on three continents.

Shaffer is "astounded" by the diversity of the work in Hands On, which includes representational and abstract art, color and black-and-white imagery and approaches ranging from weighty to the whimsical. "Considering [the artists] only had three weeks to create and digitize everything," she says, "the work is remarkable."

None had to know or echo the work of Gonzalez-Torres. Each artist, in fact, conjured unique impressions from the essential idea of the human hand.

The process challenged Nick Barna, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who has done "guerrilla work" on local billboards. Barna normally favors objects and text over the human form, but as he imagined ways in which hands are used, he saw images of gathering and tossing. He and a collaborator, Anna Davis, shot digital pictures of a hand - Barna's, actually - dispensing colorful yarn, confetti and felt pieces, later cropping their selections to fit the "extremely horizontal" parameters of the assignment. Their entry features a hand with curled fingers that somehow suggests openness and appears to be scattering a spray of bright color. "It's vibrant and textured," says Barna, "It's only a hand, but it seems to give energy."

Hands evoked a different meaning for Castro, who has long been at work on a series of photographs he calls Sacred Sites. Until he got the Hands On commission, he never knew how prominently hands featured in his explorations of hallowed landscapes, but finding a few helped him locate undercurrents in his own art. "In my work, the hand is there to give and receive," he says. "Someone might set up stones to create a sacred site, or leave a token to remember or [to] ask for healing." For his selection, he crops an image in a way that highlights one hand from a plastic statue of Mary.

Whatever their approach, the artists knew that displaying their work in public would open the experience of viewing. An MTA bus can follow any number of routes on a given day; between now and Jan. 31, there's no telling, says Shaffer, how many settings each will pass through. "Every place it goes, a work becomes something different," she says.

And that, ultimately, is the point: to broaden the public's sense of art and its meanings. Yes, Baltimore audiences can see the Hands On works at the Contemporary, where they'll be on display for the next two months, but they'll have their most potent effect along the streets and highways of Baltimore.

"If a work is in a gallery or museum," says Barnes, "there's a huge history and set of expectations. When you have a chance to experience it as it is, free from knowing who did it or what it's about, there's a chance to think, `Hey, is that cool?' or `Is that interesting?'

"To me, that's what matters about public art."

The public is invited to attend an opening reception for Hands On today, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Museum, 100 West Centre St., and to share responses to the project on its Web site, www.handsonbus.com.

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