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With souped-up top prize, Baker Artist Awards exhibit offers diverse rewards

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The genre-ranging 2016 Baker Artists Awards exhibit offers much to savor at the BMA.

No sooner did the exhibit of Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists 2016 wrap up at the Baltimore Museum of Art than the exhibit of the Baker Artist Awards 2016 opened there, providing another rewarding, diverse-genre experience.

For the Baker Awards, established by the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund and administered by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, artists — in any discipline — who live and work in Baltimore or its surrounding counties can submit portfolios online. An anonymous jury judges the entries. The 2016 winners were announced in May.

Previously, the Baker Awards bestowed three $25,000 prizes. This year, there's a single top honor, the Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize. At $50,000, it's now one of the largest awards of its kind in the country. The 2016 recipient is Joyce J. Scott, whose striking glass sculptures, incorporating beads, threads and other materials, occupy half the space in the BMA exhibit.

Filling the rest of the space are samples from writer Jen Grow, who received the new $20,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize, and winners of three $5,000 awards — dancer, choreographer, director and designer Naoko Maeshiba; filmmaker Matt Porterfield; and painter Bill Schmidt.

"One of the things I love is the breadth of disciplines represented here," says Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

There's even considerable breadth within one of those disciplines. Scott's distinctive work contains so many possible connotations and implications that visitors may well find themselves circling around her sculptures again and again, detecting a fresh perspective at each turn.

At 67, Scott is well established. Some of her works are in the permanent collection of the BMA, which devoted an exhibit to her in 2000, a 30-year retrospective of her career. The Baker show, featuring pieces created between 2008 and this year, provides a welcome opportunity to savor her startling artistry again.

Working in glass — Scott honed her skills with master Venetian glassblowers in recent years — the artist adds layers of beadwork, needlework and more to create statements that unnerve or amuse (sometimes both at once). Racism, violence, sexism and sexual exploitation are among the topics she explores.

In "War Baby," the head on a child's shimmering torso made of hand-blown Murano glass tilts upward with a pleading gaze. Cords tightly bind the legs and hands together. Another bound figure, this one tiny and made of beads and thread, hangs onto the barrel of a life-sized rifle formed out of deep amber-colored glass. The title: "Sex Traffic."

Another weapon, this time a glass handgun in a rich green hue filled with bullets, points upward into the base of a beaded head. The expression on the face could suggest someone unaware or all too cognizant of the threat.

Scott tweaks a group of small ceramic figurines made in Japan to wry, pointed effect in a series called "Still Funny." Note the one called "Lover 1" — into the hands of a finely dressed 18th-century man in a powdered wig, Scott has placed the beaded figure of a black woman who doesn't seem entirely comfortable in the embrace. You might get a sudden image, as I did, of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

And in "Pretty Girl Veiled," a Nigerian wooden object is attired in an exquisitely beaded dress. A sense of pride and assurance emanates from the face behind the veil.

In contrast to Scott's eye-grabbing sculptures, Schmidt's abstract geometric paintings, made of gouache and ink in muted colors, exert a gentler pull. Six works are arranged across a wall of the exhibit, each one suggesting a puzzle that has gradually been solved. The pieces seem to speak to each other, in one way or another.

The diversity of disciplines represented in the 2016 Baker winners made things a little tricky for the BMA in terms of display. What to do with Grow's writings? And how do you capture what such a multilayered performer as Maeshiba is all about?

"It's always a puzzle when we have these group shows," says Helene Grabow, a curatorial assistant at the museum and one of the exhibit's co-organizers. "We worked with the artists and discussed various ways we could display their work."

In the case of Grow, "she was concerned about retaining the form of her work," says the exhibit's other organizer, curatorial assistant Morgan Dowty.

Visitors can leaf through a copy of Grow's widely admired short story collection "My Life as a Mermaid," or a slender volume containing another story and a couple of essays. But that's not the main attraction. Listening stations give people an opportunity to hear the author read short stories and an essay, varying in length from four to 25 minutes.

There's an extra visual element, too. Grow selected several sentences from her works that readers told her struck a particularly meaningful chord; the lines are printed on the wall above the listening stations.

"It's the first year a major prize [of the Baker Awards] has gone to a writer," Howe says. "I'm really thrilled about that. We have an amazing writing community in Baltimore. They might feel that this competition is not for them, but this should change that."

Maeshiba's entry in the exhibit consists primarily of a video monitor with earphones attached.

"She's a performance artist whose work is typically 90 minutes long," Grabow says. "Here we have just brief clips."

Those excerpts from three pieces add up to little more than 12 minutes, just a tantalizing taste of Maeshiba's intense and complex style.

More successful in terms of visitor experience is the way Porterfield is represented. One of the films in his winning portfolio is the 30-minute "Take What You Can Carry," made last year in Berlin (his first film shot outside his native Baltimore region). It's about a young American woman's experiences in the German capital — an intimate relationship, a group class, etc. — and her desire to find her own path.

Porterfield turned it into a kind of triptych for this exhibit. Separate portions of the film run simultaneously on three screens. It's easy to be absorbed by what transpires on the screens even if you don't use the earphones to follow the sparse dialogue. Every frame reveals Porterfield's rich sense of lighting, color and mood. This is poetic filmmaking.

(By the way, Porterfield slips in a reference to his hometown. A scene of the woman reading aloud from a letter uses a letter the filmmaker received from his grandmother in Baltimore.)

It's too bad there wasn't space or time to fashion viewing/listening booths to house the video items, which would have especially given Maeshiba's work a boost. But that's a minor disappointment. All in all, the Baker Artist Awards 2016 exhibit succeeds at honoring the honorees, and helping visitors appreciate the judges' decisions.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Baker Artist Awards 2016 runs through Sept. 11 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. A reception at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 will feature performances, readings and a film screening. For more information, call 443-573-1700, or go to artbma.org.

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If you go

Baker Artist Awards 2016 runs through Sept. 11 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. A reception at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 will feature performances, readings, and a film screening. For more information, call 443-573-1700, or go to artbma.org.

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