If the usual summertime cultural fare — pops concerts, lightweight novels for beach reading, escapist movies — has you hankering for something more substantive and stimulating, head over to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The new exhibit in the Front Room gallery at the entrance to the Contemporary Wing is anything but passive entertainment. The videos, photos, sculptures and mixed-media pieces by Baltimore's Jimmy Joe Roche and British-born Nathaniel Mellors are all about provoking, perplexing, parodying and poking fun.
Curator Kristen Hileman, who encountered Roche's works in Baltimore and New York and Mellors' at the Venice Biennale, saw the potential in pairing the rebellious artists. The result is an engrossing — in a couple instances, just gross — show that considers our mass/social media-fueled world from unsettling angles.
Roche's video "Peacing Out" shows him emerging from a void, grinning in simultaneously clownish and scary fashion, while giving the peace sign. Fireworks gradually erupt, casting an eerie light across the screen. The effect hints at war as much as celebration — and the people who smile blithely through both.
There's more than mirth in the exaggeratedly laughing faces that dominate two color prints, "Whoops" and "Baseball." During a media preview of the exhibit, Roche spoke about getting at "the tension in American culture" through these pieces. That tension starts to look creepy after a while.
Similar tension animates "Welcome Home," a video depicting, horror movie-like, a face melting away — a fantasy on a theme of digitally corrupted images.
Roche, 32, is also represented by two massive and beautiful sculptural works hung on the gallery walls — "Great Alaskan Meta Dripper" (paper and acrylic) and "Greater Black Astral Dripper" (aluminum, vinyl and acrylic). These abstracts exude a palpable energy; even the shadows cast on the walls play a part.
In form, they might be taken for distant cousins of Andy Warhol's "Rorschach" painting hanging in an adjoining space. A lot can be read into them — by the artist's own count, "Great Alaskan Meta Dripper" references nature, 19th-century drawings, totems, contemporary artist Frank Stella, comic book art, tendrils, wings, and, yes, the Alaskan king crab.
The intricate curves and twists lend themselves to deep psychological interpretations, too, of course. One more reason the sculptures are so compelling.
Mellors, 38, produces videos complete with actors, costuming, location shots, a touch of plot, and mature language.
Ö"Ourhouse" is a miniseries about an odd family in a once-grand British house headed by "Daddy," who, Mellos said, "faces the collapse of his value system. He thought he was a radical artist, but he found out he's really an administrator."
In the 34-minute Episode 1 ("Games"), on display at the BMA, a stranger appears and proceeds to eat books in the house.
Unusual consumption is also a theme in "The Saprophage," a 10-minute video shot entirely on an iPhone. The title character feeds on decaying organic matter, including human waste, and has an obsession with finding America. Everyone in the film is trapped in what Mellors describes as "a permanent present."
The video, influenced by filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, also seems to owe a little to Monty Python. It's absurd, wry, strangely watchable. Same for a companion piece — a sculpture made of wood, paper, plaster and chicken wire, with an embedded video showing a pseudo-documentary on the making of "The Saprophage."
Reality and non-reality coexist tightly in Mellors' work, as they do in Roche's. The whole exhibit delivers an unsettling dose of the surreal.