`Artscape at BMA' is simply terrific

ART

Exhibition succeeds at showing vibrancy of city's art scene

July 05, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It makes all the difference in the world whether you're the one pointing a gun or the one it's pointed at. It's a question of having different options, you might say, depending on at which end of the barrel you happen to be.

Another way of putting it is that one's point of view has a big influence on one's perception of reality. Change the point of view, and the reality is apt to change, too - sometimes quite drastically.

That seems to be the animating principle behind Artscape at the BMA: Observation Deck, the terrific exhibition currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art as its contribution to the city's annual three-day outdoor arts festival that starts July 22. (The show is one of several that have opened before the start of the arts festival.)

Put together by guest curator and New York-based artist Gary Simmons and the BMA's senior curator of contemporary art, Darsie Alexander, Observation is hands down one of the best Artscape exhibitions in recent memory - maybe even the best.

This show's got everything you'd want in an exhibition aimed at showcasing the best of what's happening in Baltimore's vibrant arts scene: young, emerging artists with tons of talent; really, really interesting artworks; a knockout installation design; and a startlingly original curatorial premise that actually ties them all together.

The first thing that hits you when you walk into the show's second-floor gallery is the giant, floor-to-ceiling aerial photograph of Baltimore by the artists' collective of Scott Berzofsky, Nicholas Petr and Nicholas Wisniewski. (The effect of its scale is impossible to fully appreciate in our reproduction.)

Called Pirate Baltimore, the piece is composed entirely of enormously enlarged segments of a pirated satellite photograph that the artists swiped off the Internet and mounted seamlessly on dozens of foam-core panels that cover the gallery's 30-by-34-foot east wall.

At that scale you can make out individual streets and city landmarks, as photographed from 150 miles up - especially if you use one of the installation's handy pairs of binoculars that let you examine the map's details anywhere on the 30-foot-high wall.

There's a kind of gee-whiz excitement in seeing a whole city laid out before you like this, especially when you look at the parts of the photo near the ceiling through binoculars, which produces the strange sensation of looking both down and up at the same time.

But the piece also conveys an intimation of more sober realities. It looks like a big target map, the kind of highly detailed aerial photograph that military commanders use to make bomb-damage assessments.

Viewed in this light, Baltimore looks distressingly vulnerable, as if we were watching ourselves through the indifferent cross-hairs of a mortal enemy. Who else has maps like this squirreled away? Are they friendly?

Ultimately there's something both impressive and terrifying about this fascinating piece. It makes us uncomfortably aware of how easily our own vaunted technology can be turned against us - and of the dire consequences such a reversal would entail. Geoff Grace's lively wall painting of a leafy green tree on the opposite wall is nearly as large as Pirate Baltimore and, amazingly, is executed in a medium entirely composed of clay and whiskey.

This piece at first seems much less somber than Pirate, almost festive in mood. We can imagine clambering happily over its sturdy branches 50 feet off the ground. All the shapes in the tree are based upon the shapes of Caribbean islands says the artist. Cheerful or not, though, no one would wish to fall from its branches.

Again, delight or terror - it's all in your point of view.

There are half a dozen equally outstanding pieces in this show, including Rene Trevino's beautiful but ominous Baltimore raven sewn out of black felt and rhinestones, which seems to soar soundlessly across the gallery's outside wall, and Renee Van der Stelt's mysterious black-and-white lambda prints created from painted glass negatives, which seem to echo the jagged fractal shapes of one of distant Saturn's icy, airless moons.

The show runs through July 31. The museum is at 10 Art Museum Drive. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Admission is $7 adults, $5 students and seniors. Call 410-396-7100, or visit www.artbma.org.

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