Artists break the `silence'


School 33 exhibit addresses invisibility and stereotypes

December 21, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

To hear some tell it, identity art - the set of art practices that became popular in the 1990s as a way of examining issues of race, class and gender - is old hat by now. Been there, done that.

Yet to judge from (In)visible Silence, the thoughtful exhibition curated by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers at Baltimore's School 33 Art Center, contemporary artists are still creating new works that challenge stereotypes, skewer the powers-that-be and demand answers to the big questions about who we are as a nation and as individuals.

Biggers, an African-American artist whose own works frequently explore the theme of identity, was asked by School 33 to select a group of Baltimore-area artists with similar concerns. "I try to curate a show every few years in order to revisualize my own relationship with the art-making process," Biggers said. "These are all ideas that interest me in my own work, and I wanted to see how other people approached them."

Biggers asked the artists for work that responded to the idea of social "invisibility" - the central metaphor of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, which explored the connection between race and identity in mid-20th-century America.

What he got back suggested the diversity of approaches contemporary artists are using to talk about a universal theme.

Everlena Zoe Charlton's projection-screen videos muse about the idea of invisibility by reimagining the experience of the first African captives brought to the New World and their struggle to understand the unfamiliar languages of their new masters.

Charlton's videos depict a handsome African-American woman taking swimming lessons in a fancy outdoor pool. The voice of an instructor can be heard off-screen issuing instructions, but the words are all in Dutch, German or Czech.

Superficially, the piece resembles a home video of an affluent black family's holiday vacation. Yet the "invisible" narrative to which it refers is quite chilling. "I still haven't figured out how she does it, but the result is very haunting, very attractive," Biggers said.

Photographer Marina Gan dispenses with images of people altogether in her black-and-white images of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach in New York. The deserted boardwalks and empty seaside benches in her pictures are stand-ins for a population that in some ways remains largely invisible - in this case, the thousands of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have settled in the area.

A sense of absence also permeates the elegant, mirrored floor sculpture of Sungmi Lee, which is made of thousands of tiny shards of glass salvaged from demolition sites. Each fragment is a symbolic token of houses that no longer exist and of people who once inhabited them.

Linda Hesh's clever, in-your-face "art ads" actually are conceptual artworks that she attempted to have published last fall as ordinary newspaper display ads in two newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post).

The artist bought advertising space in the papers' front sections, then designed two diminutive artworks to place as ads. One depicted a gay couple, the other an interracial couple. Below each, Hesh wrote a short but provocative phrase such as "They could ruin your marriage" or "At least they're not gay." Both newspapers initially rejected the ads, fearing they might offend some readers.

So Hesh tinkered with the wording of the phrases under the pictures until the ads passed muster. Then she had them published and waited for the public's response.

Her installation documents the evolution of the artwork, and it includes her correspondence with the newspapers as well as copies of the grand total of six responses she got from readers when the ads were finally published.

"I was surprised at how many different ways these artists found to talk about power," Biggers said. "But at the same time I didn't want the work to be just political. In my own work, I'm very interested in the physical impact of artworks as well."

The artworks in this show certainly pack a wallop; their creators challenge the status quo and celebrate the differences of class, color and sexual orientation that make each individual unique. And perhaps that's the most "political" art can be in any age.

The show runs through Jan. 6. The gallery is at 1427 Light St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-396-4642 or visit the Web site at

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