The Baltimore Museum of Art looks a little off-putting these days. Much of the exterior is covered over and a good chunk of the interior closed off to the public while an extensive renovation project is under way. But once you navigate the temporary entrance, things are still very inviting.
Head to the Contemporary Wing's Front Room, where temporary exhibits provide an entryway to the BMA's rich permanent collection of modern art. The current exhibit offers photographs by An-My Le. Expect to spend extra time lingering over these works, shot with a large-format camera.
Le, born in Vietnam, was airlifted out of the country with her family in 1975 at the age of 15, as the wretched war there was stumbling to its close. The now New York-based artist received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (commonly called a "genius" grant) in 2012.
When relations between America and Vietnam began to improve, Le returned to her homeland several times. The exhibit includes a sampling of black-and-white photographs she took there in the mid-1990s.
The pieces seem to be haunted by the war, even though they reflect peaceful scenes. Ann Shafer, the BMA's curator of prints, drawings and photographs, organized the show and says that when she saw an image of kites high in the air, she was reminded of something else.
"We bring our memories of the war to these works," Shafer said. "The kites look like bombs to me."
Other viewers might not read the past into those photographs, but they won't have any choice when it comes to a group of items from 1999-2002. On first glance, they appear to be combat scenes from the Vietnam War — camouflaged soldiers concealed by tall grasses; an American fighter plane with a body hanging out of the cockpit and men with drawn weapons crouching for cover nearby.
But these are Vietnam War re-enactors in Virginia and North Carolina locations that don't resemble Southeast Asia. The eye is merely fooled for a moment into assuming that this is the real thing.
By capturing men playing at war, Le raises all sorts of issues about a chapter in our history that left this nation deeply wounded. But the photographer doesn't takes sides, doesn't preach. She even obligingly appears in one picture, dressed as a rifle-bearing Viet Cong, lying in wait for the approaching "enemy." That image carries irony to a strange new level.
After her request to be embedded with American troops during the Iraq War was denied, Le had the inspired idea to seek access to military forces not actively engaged in combat.
In 2003, she started shooting (how loaded that term sounds in this context) what might be called pre-enactment scenes — Marines training for war in Afghanistan and Iraq amid a forbidding landscape around 29 Palms, Calif., an area that could be mistaken for those countries. The images carry considerable emotional weight, given what the troops would face.
The gems of the exhibit are the big color photos taken by Le on location with various American forces stationed around the world. Again in nonjudgmental fashion, she captures startling scenes of everyday military life with a painterly eye for composition, coloristic nuance and minute detail. Her way of using sky and sea is especially potent.
Each photo has a kind of drama and tension, informed by a deep sense of the past and tinged with unanswered questions about tomorrow.
Speaking of unanswered, for something completely different, step into the Black Box next to the Front Room and catch a grainy 16mm film and assorted photographs devoted to the subject of the Loch Ness Monster.
These wry works by Irish artist Gerard Byrne — the film, complete with terribly serious narration by a Scottish actor, is almost Monty Python-droll — explore not so much the legendary creature as the way so many people just want to believe in it.