Bma Showcases Winners

May 07, 2009|By a Baltimore Sun staff writer

Intricate patterns of Arabic calligraphy, boulders that seem to have been sculpturally halved, expressively potent sax improvisations - these are the disparate, but equally intriguing, results of a competition to honor artists in all disciplines who live in the Baltimore area.

The first Baker Artist Awards, created by the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, produced three $25,000 winners chosen by jury: jazz saxophonist Carl Grubbs, sculptor John Ruppert and visual artist Hadieh Shafie. Another seven $1,000 "Baltimore's Choice" winners were chosen by an online voting process.

The competition drew 656 nominees and more than 35,000 online visitors, putting Baltimore's diverse art scene in a unique cyber spotlight. Representative work by the winners can now be seen up close at an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art's West Wing of Contemporary Art, on display through June 28.

"I met with each of the artists to choose items for the exhibit and to see what they were doing in terms of new work," says Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "I didn't want to show works that have been shown elsewhere."

So even those already familiar with the Baker Artist Awards recipients are apt to find a discovery or two in the exhibit, such as Ruppert's Vertical Strike. Jutting 14 feet into the air from a bed of burnt sand and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, the jagged metal object commands attention just outside the main exhibit space.

"John finds pieces of wood that have been blasted from trees by lightning, then molds them and wraps the mold in iron and uses a process to speed up the rust," Fisher says. "This one was made only a couple weeks ago. In spite of the violence, it takes on a monumentality as it reaches to the sky."

Its placement by a window overlooking museum grounds means that viewers can also glimpse a very different example of Ruppert's work - Orb, a structure created out of ordinary chain-link fencing, held up by tension. Back inside the museum are sizable examples of his found-object-based work, Split Rock 'Tablet' (granite and cast copper) and Plateau (granite and bronze). In each case, a boulder is matched to an artificially created half to create sculpture that seems to play off the notion that nature imitates life.

The Iranian-born Shafie is represented by several vivid works that share a common motif. "She's very interested in the calligraphic tradition," Fisher says, "and she works with the discipline of a monk working in a cell."

Elegantly curved Farsi script is carefully applied with ink on paper over and over to create larger forms, as in Converge, where the small black writing creates two large intersecting lines against an aqua background.

From a distance, 27989 suggests a painted canvas with its almost psychedelic colors. But as the viewer nears, the piece is revealed to be an assortment of small scrolls, tightly packed and glued onto a panel - "Like rolls of old adding machine paper," Fisher says.

Look more closely, and it's possible to see on most of the scrolls more Farsi script, "as if they are ancient sacred texts. There's a sense of accumulated historical knowledge in her work," Fisher says.

There's a deep sense of history, too, in the work of Grubbs, the aural Baker Artist Award-winner. In a separate room, a large screen shows Grubbs performing his own "Carl's Blues," as well as "Joy" by his brother Earl Grubbs and "Giant Steps" by jazz icon John Coltrane.

With his eyes often closed and little physical motion beyond fingers on the keys, the saxophonist has an almost sculptural presence in the professionally filmed video, but the music emerges with virtuosity and vibrancy. (Grubbs will perform at the BMA on July 25.)

if you go

The Baker Artist Awards 2009 exhibit runs through June 28 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Admission is free. For more information, call 443-573-1700 or go to

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