BMA and Walters stay close to home this summer

The summer exhibits at Baltimore's two largest museums are very different in nature, but both emphasize local input. All of the participating artists in the "Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2012 Finalists" exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art reside in the region, while the Walters Art Museum's "Public Property" exhibit consists of Walters-owned objects whose curatorial selection was directly determined by public vote.

Let's start our local trip at the BMA. It's a truism that muse-inspired artists aren't in it for the money, but it's still kind of nice to receive some money. Co-presented by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the jurored Sondheim Prize exhibit gives money to the six finalists currently showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The winner of the top prize of $30,000 will be announced at a BMA event, open to the public, on Saturday, July 14, at 7 p.m., with the remaining finalists each receiving $2,500.

Several of the exhibiting artists have a shared interest in using eclectic materials to make sculptural assemblages.Washington, D.C.-based artist Renee Stout combines materials to make shrine-evocative structures exploring black American spiritual practices in New Orleans. One of her shrines, "The House of Chance and Mischief," is an especially rich example of how a mysterious vibe emanates from such box-shaped shrines.

Baltimore artist Matthew Janson's mixed media sculptures convey the idea that junk is a crucial aspect of our consumer-driven society. His three "Commodity Gods" are upright skeletal forms made out of materials including foam, plastic, steel and paint. In his other exhibited sculptures, the materials include a fast-food cup and even shredded dollar bills. Ironically, his inclusion in this exhibit ensures that he'll receive unshredded cash.

For Baltimore artist Lisa Dillin, it's interesting to play tricks with architectural design and the surrounding environment. In "Natural Lighting Emulator II," she punches holes in vinyl vertical blinds so that they now admit glowing green light that comes from fluorescent lighting installed behind the blinds. These mundane blinds now resemble a colorful abstract painting.

Another Baltimore artist, Jon Duff, has a deceptively simple approach to his assembled materials. His "Orange Drink" consists of an orange plastic resin-filled glass resting atop a white cube-shaped table that itself rests atop a blue rug.

Although it adds up to bright and clean home decor, that drink is so assertively orange that one wonders whether it would emit a radioactive glow inside your stomach.

The remaining two artists work in photography and video.

Baltimore artist John McNeil has light box-installed photographs taken inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Sykesville. One of the most effective of them, "Projection Booth," shows the sadly derelict room where movies were once presented. McNeil also has a 24-minute video shot inside the hospital.

A melancholy mood is engendered by this documentary project; if it persists, seek professional help.

Hasan Elahi, a native of Bangladesh now living in suburban Washington, once found himself mistakenly placed on a terrorist watch list.

That surely influenced his interest in surveillance technology. Typical of his work is the video "Concordance," which shows the landscape around a very ordinary-looking apartment building. It seems like an uneventful place, but you never know.

At the Walters, the exhibit "Public Property" is a reminder that the museum's collection actually belongs to the citizens of Baltimore. Hence, the museum administration decided to have an exhibit in which people voted either online or in person to decide the exhibit's title, theme and selection of individual artworks. This process started last December and resulted in the exhibit now installed at the museum.

After picking "Creatures" as the theme, voters then picked 106 works of animal-depicting art. The exhibit includes a salon-style installation of 23 paintings by the esteemed likes of Edgar Degas, Jean-Leon Gerome, Antoine-Louis Barye and Jean-Francois Millet. Various manuscripts and sculptural objects are not on display but are represented by photographs.

The citizen-interactive process continues when you visit the exhibit. These opinion-gathering opportunities include an invitation to place red poker chips in front of your favorite work of art.

Although this intriguing exhibit raises all sorts of important questions about the museum world, it's frankly not much to see. It's a relatively small exhibit that understandably devotes most of its wall space to explaining the curatorial mechanics of the show.

And it also seems like it would have been awfully easy for members of the public to, er, stuff the electronic and actual ballot boxes. Enthusiastic citizens could have voted early and often, because an art-loving mob will stop at nothing.

"Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2012 Finalists" runs through July 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets in Baltimore. Call 443-573-1700 or go to

There also will be an exhibit of the Sondheim Artscape Prize Semifinalists at Maryland Institute College of Art that opens during Artscape weekend, July 20- 22, and runs through Aug. 5. MICA is located at 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave., in Baltimore. Call 1-877-BALTIMORE or go to

"Public Property" runs through Aug. 19, at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Call 410-547-9000 or go to

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