"Bearing Witness," the multi-venue exhibit opening today, presents a provocative collection of works created over the past decade or so by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, works that confront head on — even full body on — the ever-thorny issues of race, violence and marginalization. For this biracial couple, such topics all very personal.
As David Spalding, a Beijing-based critic and curator, has written, the New York-based "McCallum and Tarry take the past upon themselves quite literally, using their bodies as screens onto which viewers can project the fading, urgent histories of American race relations."
The most startling examples of this are on view at the Contemporary Museum, which is presenting "Bearing Witness" with the Maryland Institute College of Art's Exhibition Development Seminar.
Among the items at the museum is "Exchange," a hauntingly shot video from 2007 that shows the two artists attached to vials and tubing, and images of flowing blood. The whole ugly past of "one drop rules" about racial purity suddenly, chillingly comes back into focus. But equally powerful is the sense of total faith in each other that McCallum and Tarry convey. This isn't some ghoulish exercise.
The couple addresses the matter of racial identity in another startling way, through the silkscreen-on-foil wallpaper (also from 2007) that covers and entire museum wall. At first glance, you may think red flowers are the dominant motif in a subdued, elegant design that would make a good fit in a Guilford mansion. Look again.
"The wallpaper is really a self-portrait of the artists," says Irene Hofmann, executive director of the Contemporary Museum. "It starts with a microscopic image of their combined blood cells, a reminder that, not that long ago, the artists could not be married in many states. They've added elements from their family crests into the design, too."
What's hanging on that wall in this exhibit makes no less compelling a statement —a large grouping of pieces from a 2006-2009 series called "Whitewash." Again, there's a keen difference between what you see first, and what you find upon closer examination.
The images in the series appear to be familiar photographs from the civil rights struggle, including scenes of violence and protest, injury and defiance. They have an intriguing out-of-focus quality, achieved by a piece of sheer China silk bearing a photographic reproduction of the image that covers the work. Through the silk you see an oil-on-linen painting of that image. "They have this amazing holographic look," Hofmann says. "It's a metaphor for how memory operates."
The technique is also used in "Evidence of Things Not Seen," an exhibit at the Carroll Mansion that includes 104 paintings of faces. These are not ordinary portraits. "They're all mug shots of people arrested for the 1956 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama," Hofmann says. "They're hung on the walls like a family album. The arrest number for each person is on the silk layer, but not on the painting beneath, so the number starts to drift away."
Another series of these silk/oil combinations, "Projection," on display at the Contemporary Museum, offers images from early 20th century entertainers (among them, Bojangles, Josephine Baker, Eddie Cantor in blackface) and the classic film "Imitation of Life." "Blaxpolitation" movies also provide subject matter in this striking series.
The latest McCallum/Tarry video, recently filmed at the Engineers Club, contains another self-examination of biracial relationships, with contemporary and antebellum scenes. It's called "Evenly Yoked."
Other elements in "Bearing Witness" represent what Hofmann refers to as the couple's "more advocacy-based art," including two installations at MICA. "Endurance" is a video that documents a 25-hour performance by homeless teenagers that McCallum and Tarry met in Seattle. The multimedia "Witness" incorporates police call boxes and audio testimony of police violence.
At the Walters Art Museum is a startling visual/audio exhibit called "Bearing." Huge, sensitively detailed color photographs of teenage mothers in Philadelphia holding their children have been hung in context with some of the museum's historic religious paintings. The effect of seeing one of these contemporary photos looming behind a small Byzantine "Virgin Triptych" is remarkable. "It's a bit of an intervention," Hofmann says. "I love what it does, especially in this room."
Audio of the Philadelphia mothers discussing their lives and challenges is available on earphones nearby.
It's just one of the ways art and life intermingle in "Bearing Witness," prompting questions that aren't easy to answer, feelings that are hard to forget.
Video, sculpture and more at Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place, Suite 100.
Items from "Whitewash" and "Projection" relating to Billy Holiday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St.
If you go
"Bearing Witness: Work by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry" will run through July 31. The largest components is at the Contemporary Museum,100 W. Centre St. For more information, go to contemporary.org. Other elements of the exhibit are at these venues:
"Endurance" and "Witness" installations at MICA, Brown Center and Cohen Plaza, 1301 and 1303 W. Mount Royal Ave.
"Bearing" at Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.
"The Evidence of Things Not Seen" at the Carroll Mansion and "Manhole Cover Project: A Gun Legacy" at Shot Tower; Carroll Museums, 800 Lombard St.