Louis Palu's 'Angels'

Louis Palu's 'Angels' (Louie Palu / ZUMA Press / December 10, 2011)

Each summer, you can count on an engaging exhibit of finalists vying for the $25,000 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. The 2013 showcase of Maryland, Virginia and Washington artists is particularly impressive, offering a mix of photographic storytelling and social commentary, vibrant collage, and even half a pingpong table.

This year’s display is attractively housed at the Walters Art Museum instead of its usual spot in the Baltimore Museum of Art — an extensive renovation project at the BMA necessitated the temporary relocation. (The exhibit runs through Aug. 11.)

The layout takes the viewer on something of an emotional journey, with the most serious and provocative material coming first, leading to an exhilaratingly wry splash at the end (that’s where the table tennis comes in).

Photography is the main component in four of the finalist entries.

The Alexandria-based Gabriela Bulisova, who has a graduate degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, chronicled the post-prison experiences of 39-year-old Washingtonian Lashonia Etheridge-Bey, who served 18 years for murdering two women.

The result is “Time Zone,” more than a dozen untitled photographs, exquisitely lit and composed. They exude a quiet poetry as they tell a story of guilt and hope, of trying to restart and refocus a life.

Larry Cook from Landover Hills studied and now teaches at George Washington University. His big, sometimes confrontational photos include an African-American youth in a hoodie, arms folded, staring expressionless at the viewer (Trayvon Martin cannot help but come to mind). A triptych, “All American,” balances a shot of a man in a KKK outfit with what appear to be young black gang members.

Cook’s video installations also compel, especially a pair of facing monitors, each showing a nearly motionless, heavily tattooed man. Both seem slightly uncomfortable being watched, but also seem to know how uncomfortable they can make the viewer. It’s a riveting experience.

Baltimore-based Nate Larson, a MICA teacher who was a 2010 Sondheim finalist, is represented by a vibrant series of photos that have a subtle narrative.

The starting point is Ford’s Theatre in Washington, seen from the outside with a family of tourists cavorting on the steps. From there, it’s on to an alley behind the theater and various places that were along the escape route of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. This is not some history lesson, though; it’s an incisive look at the world that has sprung up in this history-filled swath.

A wall outside a nondescript American Legion hall in Clinton is painted with stars and stripes and the admonition: “Show Your True Colors.”

A shot of a cookie-cutter home in Clinton, on the improbable corner of Libation Court and Symposium Way, makes a subtle statement. A pink crape myrtle on the front lawn contrasts with the stark white of aluminum siding encasing the house (a bit of buckling in that siding provides the only wrinkle in this pristine image). A huge TV satellite in the backyard takes on sculptural weight.

Louis Palu, a Washington-based artist who was a 2011 Sondheim finalist, delivers an uncompromising photographic essay on contemporary Mexico in black and white.

Violent scenes of the drug wars shock and awe, balanced by the almost surreal beauty of “Angels,” a shot of young girls in weathered robes, their heads bowed, their hands raised in supplication, pleading for an end to the bloodshed.

In “Deported,” the incendiary issue of illegal immigration is boiled down to its human essence on the drained face of a woman caught after crossing the American border and walking for days in the Arizona desert. Cold statistics and all the recent talk of hiring tens of thousands more border guards suddenly seem beside the point.

After the photocentric finalists comes a room filled with intriguing pieces by Caitlin Cunningham, a Baltimore-based MICA grad. She manages to put fresh life into the collage genre, creating some cool juxtapositions.

One of them includes an old postcard from Tahiti, sent by someone named Bill to a pal in New Zealand, wryly lamenting that the island women “unfortunately don’t go around bare-breasted.” Among the items balancing that postcard is a copy of the book, “Poisoned Reign: French Nuclear Colonialism in the Pacific,” which gives the collage a nice little zing.

Cunningham also is represented by “Jack/son Torrance,” a huge, playful, abstract installation awash in splattered paint.

That piece provides the perfect segue into the show’s most audacious entry, Dan Steinhilber’s “Marlin Underground,” a large room full of found objects, many from nooks and crannies of the Walters itself. All of the items are wired for sound, which makes this wild and crazy installation all the more exhilarating.

The Washington-based Steinhilber, whose inventive works have been displayed by the BMA, the Hirshhorn Museum and many other venues, has an uncanny ability to jumble together unlikely items and make a strange kind of sense out of them.

Here, among many other things, you’ll encounter a sewing machine, ugly metal file cabinets, an electric heater, part of an air duct, a washing machine, a bad-art metal wall clock with embedded birds, trash cans, a hot-water heater and three massive, stuffed marlins mounted on the walls.

The artist prerecorded sounds made with these items, such as a dropped pingpong ball (only half a table was found) or a key being struck on a typewriter. A computer processes those sounds and sends them back to the objects in random fashion, so it seems as if the whole room is animated by unseen forces — an industrious chorus proclaiming artistic properties in even the most mundane of objects.

“Marlin Underground” is a real kick, bound to send visitors home with a smile.

The winner of the Sondheim Artscape Prize will be announced July 13. The jury might have a very tough time reaching a decision.