Sondheim Prize finalists engage senses, issues
BMA exhibit features provocative photography, video, sculpture
Aug 06, 2009 - Kandahar, Afghanistan - An Afghan police officer (ANP) with machine gun rounds wrapped around his neck prepares to go on patrol in the village of Adamzai in Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. This area is part of the new effort to secure the outlying areas of Kandahar City. (Louie Palu, Baltimore Sun / June 25, 2011)
That description, especially the "significant issues" part, seems doubly fitting for the 2011 finalists, whose work is on display at the museum through Aug. 7.
The collection includes hard-hitting, uncompromising photos from the war in Afghanistan by Washington-based Louie Palu. Photographs taken in Spain by another Washington-based artist, Mark Parascandola, confront the topics of the legacy of developers. A video by Baltimore's Stephanie Barber, using old photos of nameless men, creates a haunting poem about identity and loneliness.
Rounding out the exhibit are bold abstract sculptures of Baltimore-based Rachel Rotenberg that incorporate wood and vine; and a wall-sized installation of cellphone photos by another Baltimore-based artist, Matthew Porterfield, who also created a kinetic video out of those images.
This is the sixth year of the $25,000 Sondheim Prize, produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and given to an artist in the Greater Baltimore region. The 2011 winner will be announced by a jury on July 9.
The BMA's exhibit of the 2011 finalists is likely to spur plenty of comment. Palu's work, in particular, promises to generate strong reactions.
"Right after [President Barack] Obama talks about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, you can go to an art museum and see photographs of the actual war," Palu says.
The artist spent the better part of five years in Afghanistan, photographing a war that seems to have been out of sight, out of mind for many Americans. The images Palu captured will put it right back front and center.
"There are a number of complicated factors about showing images of horror and war," he said. "It is an extremely difficult environment to work in. You are near death all the time, the smell of blood every day. You name it, I saw it."
The compelling composed photographs show gravely wounded soldiers and civilians, a horse killed by an improvised explosive device, bloodied limbs and blood-stained floors, a bound and gagged prisoner.
In one shot, a civilian is being searched, his arms outstretched. Only one eye of the confronting soldier can be seen, but it is clear that both eyes are staring intently into the man's face as if trying to read his soul, while the hands determine the risk posed by the body.
"My goal or mission is not to have people crying, but to stir discussion," Palu says. "I want people to feel what it's like on the front lines."
Palu's photographs have two-edged power, given their subject matter and their remarkable sense of structure and color. The same can be said of Parascandola's work, a series of photos taken in Almeria, a desert landscape in Spain.
"My mother's family is from there, and I've been traveling there since I was a kid," Parascandola says. "Almeria has gone through various boom and bust cycles. Throughout the 20th century, it has been one of the poorest regions in Europe."
The photographer found in that area the material to evoke "the idea of a ghost town."
Some of the ghostly images are housing developments that were started during a boom cycle, but left unfinished or abandoned as the economy soured. The photos create striking geometrical shapes etched against the barren landscape.
The other photos in Parascandola's Sondheim entry are of movie sets used for "spaghetti Westerns" filmed in that part of Spain decades ago. These ghost towns "were never inhabited, of course, but they have been abandoned and left in the desert," says the artist, whose work speaks to multiple issues while providing vivid structure and color.
Structure and color are primary forces in Rotenberg's sculpture.
"They're come from stories I miraculously create — well, to me, it feels miraculous," the artist says. "Then I draw them until I get to the place where it just says 'build me.' "