Six finalists vie for Baltimore's top art award, the Sondheim Prize

Art prizes are always contestable

because they attempt to define the ineffable: By putting money and prestige behind a particular artist, awards inevitably make a claim about art itself.


There is, of course, a certain drama to the very act of deciding. It is why Greek tragedy was performed in competition and why art/fashion/design/cooking contests are so popular on television. And it is why, on July 14, the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art will likely be filled to the gills with curious spectators. Anyone who cares enough to be there has likely seen the work of the six finalists before, so the announcement of the prize is not about the work itself, but it comes from that basic question: Who will win?

More specifically, everyone is waiting to hear who will win the Sondheim Prize and the $30,000 that goes with it. There have already been several rounds of drama: Early in the spring, the jurors announced the 47 semi-finalists, most of whom were subsequently culled out in April, when the six finalists were announced.


The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, as the award is officially known, is determined based on the exhibition at the BMA and a single interview with the jury. This year’s six finalists—Lisa Dillin, Jon Duff, Hasan Elahi, Matthew Janson, John McNeil, and Renee Stout—each bring vastly different aesthetic concerns, techniques, and materials to the space. Ranging from the playfully messy and grotesque to the coolly aloof and austere, these are six artists who, because of their status as finalists, represent the visual arts community in Baltimore.

This is where the questions and, frankly, the complaints arise. The three judges, Carlos Basualdo, Jane Hait, and Shinique Smith are forced to choose between, say, Hasan Elahi’s cool two-channel videos and Renee Stout’s cluttered rootworker’s table. But this is also what is fascinating about the Sondheim Prize.

It is rare that Baltimore has the chance to see such a broad range of high-quality local work displayed side by side in a museum setting. Sure, on any given Saturday, you can make the rounds to two or three galleries and encounter a stunning diversity of work and of space. But taken together at the BMA, each of the works illuminates the others in strange ways, both highlighting strengths and, perhaps, pointing out weaknesses.

Some of the works may fare better in the museum setting than others. Or perhaps one artist has a better day in the interview with the judges than the others. Friends and supporters of artists who are not chosen can occasionally turn to conspiracy theories or blame bad refereeing, much like jilted sports fans. There is always talk of a


Salon de Rejects


offered up in resistance to the system. But this is all only a sign of how much we actually love the Sondheim. When else do art lovers get to act like sports fans? How often is there a contest where the results are clear, even if the reasoning behind them seems opaque?

And $30,000—up from $25,000 in previous years— is a big enough prize for people to get excited about. ($2,500 is awarded to all finalists). Still, as with all contests, it’s not really about the money. The money matters, of course, but it is mostly about the judgment that comes with it, the respect, and the sense victory. (Baynard Woods)

Lisa Dillin

Creates stylish, claustrophobic officescapes

Wandering through this year's

Sondheim Finalist exhibition, a place fraught with the anxiety of high hopes, a calming, sunny light beckons viewers onward with its simulated solace. Before ever catching a glimpse of the actual work within the room, the strength and elegance of the installation beyond the yellow-lit doorway is palpable.

In a group of artists working either maximally or messily, Lisa Dillin stands out with her concise, airy exhibition. Dillin’s installation is comfortably restrained and thoughtfully minimal. Works are considered in their setting—giving due space to their individual vignettes—and as a part of a larger narrative, which illuminates the realities of our relationship to the natural world.

The artist constructs stylish office-scapes that transform what are often-forgettable fixtures into purveyors of atmospheric change. Design and art are subtly blended as faux finishes, lighting gels, and fine craftsmanship morph furniture into prototypes for a future company. Each piece creatively shoehorns nature into the aesthetically bland functionality of interior structures. While the pieces speak to a mundane, characterless space, they are at home in the museum, each effectively communicating its place within the environment it’s meant to critique.

Dillin’s works are deceptively beautiful, drawing viewers in with their futuristic encapsulations of natural textures and phenomena, and the ingenuity with which they bring the outdoors inside.

The warm glow of the fake sunlight in “Natural Lighting Emulator II” pours through laser-cut vertical blinds. The light is dappled as it passes through a series of organic shapes that resemble landforms on a map or matter in the cosmos. Two yellow screenprints, “Natural Lighting Prints 1 & 2,” with similar forms hang beside the light source, as if printed by their exposure to the light, from sun-transfer.

On the rear wall, a geometric configuration of white boxes decorates the space. The undulations of the rectangular pieces form a pixilated cloud-grouping, as indicated by the title “Working in the Cloud.” Fans with blue lights whirr softly from the sides of each box, creating an eerie amalgamation of computer and twilight conditions. The play on the concept of the cloud as both an electronic and meteorological formation is perfectly illustrated.

Cubicle claustrophobia sets in with a third arrangement, a set of earthy stools (“Root Balls”) in a dark wood, sitting beside a mirror and shelf. A cool green light shines from beneath the shelf, and venetian blinds are printed on the mirror, to give the illusion of a window in a contained space. The horrific undertones, which suggest that smart design can increase productivity by eliminating the need to venture outdoors, add a dystopian depth to the piece.

The strange, minimal moments at the BMA, including a pair of Robert Gober-like silicone feet-as-shoes, have an absurd and untouched quality that leaves the majority of the narrative up to the viewer. (Alex Ebstein)

Jon Duff

Seeks rebellion in scattershot style

Occasionally it happens

that young artists burst onto the scene fully formed and reinvent everything with the same brash—even bratty—quality we find in the best new music. “Fuck you, old guard,” the young revolutionaries scream, and in doing so, however improbably, they reinvent the world.

At a certain level, this seems to be Jon Duff’s intent. Duff, who graduated from MICA’s graduate program this spring, is the youngest Sondheim finalist, and much of his work was part of his thesis presentation.

There are obvious moments of homage to transgression. In the sculpture “Slouch,” an athletic sock leaks fleshy plastic resin onto a white straight-backed chair, recalling that masterpiece of masturbation as rebellion, Philip Roth’s


Portnoy's Complaint


. “Ape”—the only one of four paintings in his Sondheim exhibition to have a title— consists of a white, molar-like shape on a fade-away gray background with a jagged white geometry framing it and a bunch of what is meant to be ape feces splattered onto it. The reference could be to the 1999 Saatchi show at the Brooklyn Museum, where Mayor Giuliani condemned Chris Ofili’s painting because a picture of the Virgin Mary featured elephant dung.

Of course, masturbation and throwing feces are symbols of childish self-involvement as much as rebellion and, as the examples show, are already too well-worn to be rebellious.

Perhaps Duff is mocking all of the tropes of rebellion in an age where it feels impossible, in which case the ape shit and jizz sock would be cleverer than they appear. Like the horny college student who has digital access to every sex act and fetish, today’s young artist is faced with the question: How can one choose?

Duff seems to refuse to make a decision; he does not have a style so much as a series of tropes. The text accompanying the exhibition says that he intended to “combine meticulously made furniture with seemingly messy materials.” But this seems like another joke. Take for instance “ClosetMaid.” The Box-Store wire shelves of that name hang on the museum wall, littered with a slurpee lid, a clock, a bunch more gloopy socks, fertilizer, resin, and other objects. Convenient they may be, but ClosetMaids are not meticulously made. The other furniture, likewise, appears to be of Ikea quality.

The four paintings—all of which share the same pattern as “Ape” but without the joke—remind you of the posters from the ’80s with the cartoon woman with big drawn hair. Though, Duff claims they gain “sculptural presence” by being placed on the ground, their touch is light, almost like an airbrushed T-shirt.

There are some nice moments. The digital print “My Rock Collection” has a certain beauty that is both calm and cluttered, and the Dubuffet-like brutalism of “Stranger,” a grotesque blob-like sculpture carries a hefty appeal (and another joke in the form of a wallet protruding from its base).

Duff’s work points out many of the challenges a younger artist faces, and these become particularly clear in a museum setting. The lack of a single style may have been intended to blow apart the notion of style, but in this case, the jokes fall a bit flat, and the works aren’t visually interesting enough to sustain them. (BW)

Hasan Elahi

Investigates our surveillance society

Hasan Elahi's multimedia art

may be the most contemporary (in the sense of being about right now) ever to appear in the Sondheim’s finalist exhibition. That may be why it feels so distressingly depressing. Elahi’s five wall-installed pieces conspire to create a high-tech, antiseptic environment. Six monitors are placed eye-level on two walls, while large-format Chromogenc prints dominate the others. The result is like an exclusive hotel’s security control room.

The idea of surveillance has run through Bangladeshi-born, American-raised Elahi’s work ever since he was added to a watch list following Sept. 11. The technology and process of monitoring informed his long-running project TrackingTransience.net, a web portal where Elahi cataloged pretty much everything he did, so the government could know exactly what he was up to. It’s an overkill of overkill, a civil defense lawyer flooding his opposition with so much information that the plaintiff gets lost.

What Elahi does at the BMA is much more subtle and effective. He’s recast the subjects of visual art through the constant vigilance of our National Terror Alert era. “Changi” and “Hawkeye” are large composite photos of otherwise banal objects: an airplane queuing for takeoff on the runway in the former and a modern office building in the latter. The vantage point these objects are seen from is what’s curious: seemingly from the nose of an aircraft behind the one captured in “Changi,” and perhaps from a public security cam in the “Hawkeye.”

Elahi’s three video pieces—“Concordance,” “Calibration,” and “Meridian”—illuminate this vigilant gaze. The three-channel “Concordance” offers views of a brick column, a tree, and a building exterior from a distance. They’re largely static images, the only motion coming from a slight rustle of tree foliage that appears in each shot. This is the world as seen by high-tech security: the color-photographic equivalent of radio’s dead air.

“Calibration” and “Meridian” push this absurd idea further. Each one cycles through a series of digital photographs: an empty mall food court, an empty store aisle, an empty alleyway, an empty parking garage, etc. For the two-channel “Calibration” Elahi has divided each monitor’s screen into seven vertical bands which the images cycle through, the way ads change behind home plate at a baseball game.

For “Meridian,” the artist has turned the single monitor into a tighter grid of images, making it look like a digital contact sheet featuring snapshots of a security camera’s vacation: Here’s the entryway to some nameless place, here’s another. And another. And another.

Traditionally we point our cameras at that which we value—the rich and powerful, the glamorous and beautiful—and Elahi suggests that we do the same with security cameras. And what we care about in this 24-7 surveillance era are transitional voids where life doesn’t happen. This is the world we’ve created. These nothings are the things that matter to us. (Bret McCabe)

Matthew Janson

Creates Technicolor decay

"Dead Woman in a Green Room (Ghost)"

—one of Matthew Janson’s beautifully grotesque sculptures exploring the physical decay that is part of the human condition—is one of the first things to catch your eye as you enter the Alvin and Fanny Blaustein Thalheimer Galleries at the BMA. According to the wall hanging, the cane leaning up against the visceral, alien-like twists and coils of the sculpture actually belonged to a dead woman. Whether or not this is true, the work is still horrifying in the best of ways: A variety of everyday materials, such as foam, box springs, and bungee cords, come together to create a Technicolor version of the dripping rot that befalls us all.

Each of Janson’s seven sculptures in the Sondheim exhibition have a similar feel: as if the figure in a Francis Bacon painting somehow leapt off the canvas to animate a Giacometti sculpture in a Ridley Scott film. Like Giacometti’s work, Janson’s three “commodity gods” sculptures are tall and elongated—as if seen from some impossibly distant perspective—with small, reptilian faces bitterly perched atop awkwardly proportioned frames. But rather than suggesting existential loneliness, the playfully multi-colored masses that make up the bodies of these commodity gods somehow combine our wildest fantasies—the commodities we think will make us happy—with the inevitable rot of our bodies.

Another sculpture, “famulus” looms over the “dead woman in the green room (ghost)” with such a fanciful demonism that it seems to delight in the rot of its own mortal coils, while “ark” with its mirrors, animal masks, Burger King cups, and hair extensions, suggests both a horrible new covenant, the washed-up detritus after a flood, and an improbably promising archway leading beyond decay to some as yet unheard-of world.


A finalist in 2010, Janson’s work this year shows greater consistency and sense of purpose than in the previous show. It has been hip for art to investigate the corporeal for decades now, but the sci-fi homeliness of Janson’s current work feels fresh and new, despite its obvious precedents. Nevertheless, one can be left wishing the artist had more than one trick up his sleeve. While these sculptures are a big step forward and create a compelling world, they nevertheless have a way of feeling somewhat claustrophobic, each a variation on the same theme. And yet, perhaps that is precisely the point. Though we are endlessly interested in ourselves, human beings are all, in the end, variations on a genetic code that makes up the mass of our flesh.

This uncomfortable point becomes strikingly clear when we lean forward to take a closer look at “ark,” and in the broken mirrors creating its base, we catch our own reflection, and the face with which we identify becomes fractured in a cubist fun house, reminding us that we’re all waiting in the green room for death. (BW)

John McNeil

Luxuriates in abandonment

John McNeil's work may benefit

from a distinct psychological, or perhaps meteorological, advantage. At least, I am not sure I would have luxuriated in his film,

Stereo 2011,

which documents the abandoned mental hospital in Sykesville, Md., in quite the same way if it were not so hot outside. The film begins with an exterior shot of the ornate front of the abandoned building. The ground is covered with snow. There is the sound of water flowing as ice melts. Crows caw. The film has a long, slow rhythm as it pans to a water tower in the distance.

As it comes to the interior, we still hear the wind and the melting ice, but they are muffled by the slow, frozen time of the building, returning to nature through leaks and decay.

The camera’s movement through the rooms of the derelict home for the mentally ill feels like the films of Andrei Tarkovsky—especially


. As with the exterior, there is something both extraordinarily mundane and yet almost mystical about the detritus inside the hospital.

For a mental hospital, the place must have been grand once. Everywhere the signs of elegance—immense halls, high ceilings, chandeliers, old-fashioned projection booths—mix with evidence of bureaucratic administration, such as files, labels, and official markings. The inmates have all died, the bureaucracy moved on, and all along the grand halls, the ceilings and walls are peeling.

When a bit of wistful, old jazz starts spinning slowly, even unsteadily, it has an elegiac, ghostly quality that recalls the writer John Cheever’s remark that his stories are of a “long lost world . . . when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”

The things that they wore, played, and watched are still laying around. An Atari machine, pieces of tape with names written on them, sunglasses with one lens, a painted model of the track at Pimlico, and hundreds of other forgotten items pass before McNeil’s camera, and suddenly, we realize that all of these artifacts have outlasted the people who used them. Basking in the coolness of the view, we are confronted with one of the cruelest facts of time.

If you sit down waiting for the film to end, you’ll probably miss this effect. It requires that you simply give yourself over to it, without expectation of movement. At under 25 minutes, it’s not that the film is long; it’s that you need to lose track of ordinary time. There is something luxurious about the pace that only heightens the elegiac tone, as if recognizing that, whether or not it wins any prizes or is ever viewed again, the sheer material of this film may outlast its maker.

The still images of the same space—the water tower, the projection booth, the rooms—hanging on the walls seem, however, almost entirely superfluous, at best like movie posters and, less charitably, a way to make the show seem more substantial. In fact, they detract from the power of the film by giving you a kind of spatial landmark. The film is successful not so much in its depiction of space. Instead, it uses space and weather and light to create a sense of lost time suffused with memories of things we have never experienced before. In short, it creates ghosts. (BW)

Renee Stout

Questions the spirits of place

Renee Stout's "The Rootworker's

Worktable” delivers a bounty of information. The sculptural assemblage includes an antique table, on top of which rests an array of blue, brown, and clear apothecary bottles. On the wall above it is a chalkboard riddled with thoughts and lists. Underneath “Important Roots” appear four such items: John the Conqueror, Lucky Hand, Little John Chew, and Orris Root (aka love root). A smattering of other potent materials appears underneath the heading, “Things I’ll Need for the Seduction of Sterling Rochambeau”: Adam and Eve root, ginseng, ginger, black lace bra and panties, music by Cassandra Wilson and D’Angelo.

The Washington, D.C.-based Stout has a story to tell. It’s personal, but not entirely autobiographical. It’s non-traditional, but not utterly foreign. Each of her artworks can stand on its own, but taken together, Stout’s 12 mixed-media assemblages, acrylic paintings, and prints on view at the BMA trace the life of female healer, Fatima (played by Stout), who is in someway tied to the mysterious city of New Orleans.

The expected response to Stout’s gathered work—photos of the artist as Fatima in one of New Orleans’ cemeteries or a baroque parlor room; root jars housing sacred objects used for some folkloric purpose; the worktable outfitted for charming and seduction—is to read it as an exploration of African-American identity, specifically one rooted in the mysticism born of the collision of indigenous, African, Spanish, and French cultures that bubbled through the colonization of the island Hispaniola, known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic today. That reading is certainly present in the work, suggested by the voodoo leitmotif that runs through Stout’s imagery. In the archival pigment print “What Reverend Beach Said,” a hand-painted sign on a door advises “stay away from Fatima & Hoodoo! Don’t get no reading.”

But Stout delves beneath the surface of identity politics elsewhere to touch on a more poignant idea. “The Return” is a quartet of prints: two images of a cemetery, one of a voodoo storefront, and the last of a handwritten note. The note begins: “I wanted to go back to New Orleans, but couldn’t bring myself to. My fear was that Katrina washed away all the spirits.” Yes, talk of spirits qualifies the author’s belief system, but that fear is also a basic human apprehension: What if time or the elements has forever changed what I remember? Who am I without the world I can relate to?


It’s a subtle psychological pivot that tethers cultural identity to geological place. And it’s a tweak that sends ripples of emotion through “Marked by Ogun,” prints of handwritten pages that chart a woman’s life. The author talks of being the child of a builder and the granddaughter of two steelworkers, and how Ogun, the “spirit/orisha/deity that presides over metals, fire, hunting, politics, and war” in Yoruban cosmology, courses through her blood. It’s a potent and moving gesture that binds cultural memory to genetics, framing culture and identity in America as an alloy that gets stronger the more its constituent elements get folded together. (Bret McCabe)

The winner of the Sondheim Artscape Prize will be announced July 14, 7 p.m., at the BMA. An exhibition of The finalists’ works will be on display at the bma at 10 art museum drive now through sunday, july 29. the semifinalists’ works will be on display at MICA’s Decker and Meyerhoff galleries at 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun