As usual, the annual exhibit of contenders for the $25,000 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize contains a distinctive variety of artistic styles and statements.
The 2017 finalists show, now on view at the Walters Art Museum, may not be quite as eye- or mind-grabbing as some previous ones — last year's, for example, included provocative works that addressed sexual abuse and a Catholic church's pastoral outreach to the gay community.
Still, there is much to savor from the current crop of seven Sondheim Artscape Prize finalists, all of them based in Baltimore. They will learn on July 15 which of them will be chosen by a New York-centric jury for the top honor (remaining finalists receive $2,500).
The finalists exhibit, produced by Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts in partnership with the Walters and Maryland Institute College of Art, includes particularly potent paintings by Mequitta Ahuja and photography-based pieces by Kyle Tata.
Ahuja's large oils on canvas could not be more personal — self-portraiture provides a connective thread. But the artist, whose heritage is African-American and East Indian, is going after something bigger here.
"Our current circumstance — politically, economically, racially — involves so much conversation about who made America, who belongs here," Ahuja says. "I have an interest in the Colonial era and how people were depicted."
That interest generated paintings that provide multiple layers of meaning.
In "Renaissance Woman," Ahuja paints herself in the familiar 17th- and 18th-century pose of a woman dangling a piece of beaded jewelry from a raised hand to the other hand below.
But this woman holds something else — a prism, an object that strikes a note of potential and promise, not materialism. That this is a classically posed portrait of a woman of color — something one wouldn't typically see in Colonial days — adds one more layer.
"Close Quote" finds Ahuja in triplicate, seen in the background as a take-off on John Greenwood's 1749 portrait of Elizabeth Fulford Welshman (another bead-dangler); in the middle ground as a contemporary self-portrait; and in the foreground as a woman drawing a curtain over the whole scene.
Perspectives are manipulated here to intriguing effect, as they are in "Border" and "Border Distilled" (the latter drew inspiration from Fra Angelico's "The Mocking of Christ" from 1441). And "Sales Slip" conveys Ahuja as model, artist and buyer all at once.
Also telling is "Birthright," a kind of portrait-within-a-portrait showing objects from a scrapbook, inspired by one from the 1920s that belong to Ahuja's Aunt Gertie.
Tata's entry in the exhibit also involves multiple visual planes. At first glance, these digital chromogenic prints suggest only vibrant abstracts, mini-seas of prismatic designs and swirls. And, as such, they are instantly appealing, which is the point.
"I try to make it very subversive and pull people in," Tata says. "Everything is very attractive, but then you go: Wait a second."
What the viewer finds on reading the works' titles is a clue to the origins of the vivid imagery: "022000046_1_M&T Bank," "52001633_8_Bank of America," "031176110_3_Capital One."
Tata manipulates individualized security patterns on envelopes used by banks for personal data. "The colors relate to which bank the person belongs to," he says.
Emerging from within the intricate mazes on some of these works are portraits of the artist's friends. The people seem to be entangled in, or endangered by, this world of heightened security.
Tata also drew inspiration from old currency trays, creating an equally colorful series of works that add to his fascinating angle on the immense of world of finance that touches all of us in one way or another.
Color is also abundant in the dynamic, often geometric-leaning abstract oils by Mary Anne Arntzen, who approaches her works as puzzles.
"It's about solving the painting," she said. "I start off with a couple of moves and that informs what the next moves will be. Also, I really love color."
Cindy Cheng's large sculptural pieces evoke puzzles, too, puzzles intricately worked out by the placement of various-sized and -shaped objects created out of wood, foam, ceramic, sawdust and other materials.
"I make them a little absurd," Cheng said. "I found that I'm really interested in and motivated by material and tactility. I see these pieces like novels. They have chapters. They're using vocabulary to create a visual text."
An unusual visual text is among the multi-disciplinary works from Benjamin Kelley on display. "Antlophobic Hymn," installed behind glass in a wall, contains a handwritten log from the 1840s chronicling weather conditions in minute detail. The unknown writer's painstaking effort apparently began after the shock of a dreadful flood.
"Residual Evolutions" consists of a long acrylic tube holding inside a skeletal hand at one end, an astronaut's glove at the other. That glove was worn by Bonnie Dunbar aboard the 1995 flight of "Atlantis," which docked with the Russian Space Station Mir.
In between those objects, but not reaching either, is a pyramidal, latticed structure. Given the gap in U.S.-Russian relations these days, the piece may take on extra weight.
Sara Dittrich explores internal body rhythms in a series of inkjet prints, "Arrhythmia of the Body," that show the artist in motion with super-sized prosthetic hands and feet (those items are displayed sculpturally nearby).
Adding another rhythmic dimension is "Going/Staying (Walters Arts Museum)," an installation comprising a kick drum activated electronically to duplicate Dittrich's footsteps recorded during a walk through the museum.
Rounding out the exhibit, Amy Yee's series of inkjet prints, "Pictures from a Live Stream," provides a kind of sly commentary on our obsession with being connected to live video at all possible times. These pristine, random images capture mostly empty sites used for various games during the 2016 Olympics.
For something completely different, there is Yee's "The Field (Expanded)," a bit of sculptural whimsy — neat rows of Giant brand tissue boxes, all decorated with the same color, all-too-perfect picture of wild grasses and all with one tissue protruding from the top. Those white flumes seem to be catching breezes only they can feel.
The effect is at once artificial and surreal, sounding notes of commerce, mass production and marketing as it evokes a scene of impossibly coiffed dunes dotted with impossibly low, billowy clouds. It's a droll addition to an eclectic exhibit.
If you go
The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize 2017 Finalists Exhibition runs through Aug. 13 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Call 410-547-9000, or go to thewalters.org.