Close on the heels of the eclectic and engaging exhibit of Sondheim Artscape Prize winners at the Baltimore Museum of Art comes the eclectic and engaging exhibit of the Baker Artist Award winners.
The annual Baker competition, administered by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance under the direction of the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, has an unusual starting point: Artists from the Baltimore area working in any genre are invited to upload their work onto a website for anyone to see.
A private jury looks at this online community of artists — more than 700 uploaded entries for this year's competition — and chooses three recipients of the $25,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize and awards up to nine $1,000 "b-grants."
The 2012 Baker Prize winners represent three areas of artistic expression.
Alexander Heilner takes startling aerial photos (hanging out of a Cessna) and on-the-ground shots around the globe. "They capture that point where man has impacted nature," said BMA associate curator Ann Shafer.
The photos derive a powerful energy from Heilner's eye for detail, color and form. Viewed high up, expensive housing communities stitched through neatly patterned waterways take on a deceptive beauty, but the artificiality of it all and the cost to the environment seep through.
A potash mine in Utah resembles a vivid abstract painting with colors richly applied. By contrast, land-level photos taken in Iceland reveal a world where the human footprint seems impossibly small.
An odd, if beautifully composed, image from Disneyland Paris makes quite a commentary — "There's a fake mountain and a fake waterfall, with a real tree sprouting out made to look fake," Shafer said.
The sculptures by David Knopp are likely to stop visitors in their tracks. He turns plywood into intricately layered and contoured pieces of imposing size. Some have functional aspects (one is a seat); others are wildly abstract.
The shine of the surfaces creates remarkable radiance, while the painstaking creative process involved — laminated plywood sheets are cut in gradually altered shapes, then glued together and sanded — gives the works an impressive weight.
They emit a kinetic pulse, reflecting what Knopp describes as using "the 'strata' in the plywood as my lines to express movement and direction."
The third Baker winner comes from the field of music. Nathan Bell coaxes a rich tapestry of sounds out of an often-maligned instrument, the banjo, employing a variety of techniques in the process to create music with a hypnotic combination of minimalism, folk and jazz.
A video of Bell performing is part of the exhibit; he'll perform live during Friday's opening reception.
In the gallery for the b-grant winners, a major highlight is "The Devil's Alphabet," a series of gelatin silver prints by photographer Lauren Simonutti, who died this year.
"She had a bipolar disorder and became a recluse," Shafer said. "She was very open about how this mental illness affected her. There is something haunting and terrifying and prophetic about these pieces."
Other b-grantees include Marsha Wolfson Ray, whose sculptures are constructed out of dog fennel, twigs and other organic materials; and Brent Crothers, who likewise fashions striking works using dead tree limbs and found objects.
Tiffany Jones' photographs on racial themes have a strong pull, as do Miranda Pfeiffer's surreal visions, including a post-apocalyptic Baltimore cityscape with the Belvedere Hotel precariously isolated on a freshly formed butte.
The exhibit gets a kick, too, from Chris Bathgate's gleaming, machine-tooled sculptures of aluminum and other metals — a case of art bending cold mechanics to its will and producing fanciful beauty.
The opening celebration of the 2012 Baker Artist Awards exhibit is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. The exhibit runs through Oct. 7. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.