The five artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit "Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2011 Finalists" all live in either Baltimore or Washington, D.C., but they are stylistically all over the map. This makes for an eclectic exhibit that changes as you walk from one room to the next.
It's ironic that the most impressive artist in the show is the one whose photojournalistic work might not even be considered "art" in some quarters. Washington photographer Louie Palu, whose photos have appeared in publications including the New York Times and Newsweek, is represented in the BMA exhibit by a striking series about the war in Afghanistan.
This photographer's presence on the battlefield results in some guesome images of wounded and dead bodies, but that graphic immediacy is not what makes this body of photographic work so impressive. Palu's most haunting images are tightly cropped shots whose documentary power is actually enhanced by leaving the gory details to your imagination.
There is a photo of medics treating wounded American soldiers in a frontline trauma unit that certainly possesses graphic potential; but the photographer's extremely close-up, high-angle composition only shows military boots standing on a blood-smeared floor. You can imagine the rest of this scene.
Several other photos also give fragmentary views of soldiers and civilians. These figures are often seen from behind, facilitating the sense that you share their point of view as they look at the war-ravaged terrain.
In one such photo, you see the back of an American soldier as he studies the bullet-pocked walls of a school building that has been reduced to rubble.
A similarly conceived photo differs in that it's a much more closely cropped shot of the upper back of an Afghan police officer preparing to patrol a village. The back of his turban-topped head catches your attention, but what's even more noteworthy is the bullet belt worn around his neck as if it were a necklace.
Palu's work fits within a venerable tradition of war photography that possesses both artistic and journalistic merit. He's not making any sort of political statement in the exhibited work beyond reminding you of the horrors accompanying any war.
Another Washington photographer in the exhibit, Mark Parascandola, is making an environmental commentary with his frequently panoramic shots of the desert landscape of Almeria, Spain. Some of these shots depict recent housing developments that went bust and now seem like ghost towns, while others depict the remains of the Old West streets constructed to shoot the so-called spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s and '70s.
In both cases, you're looking at vacant buildings in an empty landscape devoid of people. He's showing how human intervention in nature can be temporary and perhaps ill-conceived. These architectural remnants now quietly rot in an otherwise timeless landscape.
The documentary qualities of those two artists are complemented by the overtly autobiographical mixed medium display by Baltimore filmmaker Matt Porterfield ("Hamilton," "Putty Hill"), who is represented by a wall-mounted grid of photos of his own everyday life taken by his cellphone. Nearby is installed a short video incorporating those photos edited into an extremely rapid montage that makes them verge on being an abstract blur.
Baltimore artist Stephanie Barber also contemplates the different ways in which one records experience. Her mixed medium installation includes her own earlier videos, as well as a video studio in whch she will work throughout the run of the exhibit. Visitors will be invited to appear in the new videos she makes and then quickly edits and exhibits here.
Standing apart from the other artists in a good sense is Baltimore sculptor Rachel Rotenberg, whose abstract sculptures are made of wood and vines that have been partially painted. Some of her pieces stand on the floor, others hang on the wall, and collectively they really take over the room.
It's worth pausing to consider the contrasts between a gently curving piece of cedar and the more tightly coiled vine next to it. Rotenberg's seductively curving constructions generally make use of open space that can be filled with your own thoughts.