At the BMA, choose your own art adventure

Mini-shows invite visitors to see and take part in making contemporary art

ArtColumn

March 09, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Avant-garde, up to the minute, cutting edge - all these phrases have been used to describe contemporary art. But what is contemporary?

Is it art that was made since World War II? Since last week? Being made as you watch?

A new series of exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art wrestles with precisely that issue. Entitled Cram Sessions, this series of four informal, month-long presentations put together by Chris Gilbert, the BMA's new curator of contemporary art, invites viewers to both experience and participate in the art of our time as it is being created.

The first of the series, Collective Effort, focuses on collective activity as an ideal. The show presents collective projects created by Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih and the Chicago-based artist group Temporary Services, and prints by British artist Chad McCail.

This is an experimental effort, a work-in-progress that unfolds in real time in the museum gallery during the course of the exhibition. (Each Saturday this month at 2 p.m., the artists will be present to discuss their work with visitors.)

Putrih's untitled project, for example, is situated in a temporary workstation equipped with individual cubicles installed in the gallery. Over the next three weeks, students from the Maryland Institute College of Art will assemble an artwork there out of thousands of multicolored foam cubes according to the artist's written instructions.

However, because the instructions are cryptic and somewhat arbitrary - for example, "add three pink cubes to one black cube" - the ultimate shape of the artwork is unpredictable. For Putrih, what's interesting is the act of simulating collective activity, not its ultimate result.

The artists in Temporary Services invite viewers to examine artworks they have assembled in a series of loose-leaf binders, along with an archive of sound recordings played on a homemade CD player.

The visual and sound pieces represent a collaborative collective artwork of sorts, but one which yields meaning only through viewers' participation in the project. (Each viewer is invited to choose which binder to peruse or which CD to play.)

McCail's prints, executed in the naive style of children's books, offer a utopian vision of social cooperation and sharing.

Curator Gilbert suggests that the Cram Sessions are as much about museum practice as about contemporary notions of what constitutes a good society. "The gallery should be a site of not just looking, but also making, choosing, relaxing, planning, plotting, conspiring and, of course, talking," he says.

This intriguing exhibition marks a notable evolution in how the BMA presents contemporary art. It also more than fulfills Gilbert's self-described goal of making the museum a place that responds to the "need to liberate a segment of time and patch of space from the administered universe ... [and] to open up a space for free-ranging discussion and thought."

The show runs through March 28. The museum is at 10 Art Museum Drive. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Admission is $5-$7. Call 410-396-7100.

More from Shore

Tony Shore's affectionate, tender, visually sophisticated paintings of his Southwest Baltimore extended family, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through March 27, mark both a personal and aesthetic evolution in the work of this remarkable artist.

Shore grew up in Sowebo's distressed working-class community, attended Baltimore's School for the Arts, then went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from, respectively, the Maryland Institute College of Art and Yale University. But he never forgot his roots.

In his Baltimore commercial-gallery debut exhibition in 2000, Shore presented excruciatingly naturalistic paintings of his relatives executed on black velvet, a medium more identified with Elvis than with fine art. Shore deliberately appropriated the medium's kitsch associations to emphasize the unpretentious lives of his subjects.

In the new paintings, Shore again portrays his family, but this time the emphasis is less on their economic and social privation than on the occasional flashes of beauty that illuminate their lives. That beauty is often embodied in the light that falls in his subjects with the sublime transparency of divine revelation.

These are works that could only be created out of love. They call to mind both the serenity of Vermeer and Walker Evans' gritty acceptance of the real. With this show, Shore takes his place as a contemporary Baltimore master.

C. Grimaldis Gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-539-1080.

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