Vibrant works from Sondheim Prize finalists

If you had to describe the 2014 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize Finalists Exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in a single word, "visceral" would fit well.

"It is about line, color, shape, texture and sound," says Robert Mintz, chief curator at the Walters, who curated the display now on view.

Like the 2013 exhibit, this one is being held at the Walters while the usual venue, the Baltimore Museum of Art, is undergoing renovations. Six of the finalists are based in Baltimore, one in Washington.

Chosen by a jury earlier this year, the seven finalists are vying for the $25,000 Sondheim Artscape Prize, which will be awarded July 12 at the Walters. Those not selected will each receive a $2,500 honorarium.

"Last year, we had a lot of framed work and a lot of social commentary from the finalists," says Kim Domanski of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which produces the Sondheim Artscape Prize. "This is a very different show to experience."

The differences include a revolving moped, bowling balls, turntables, knives and forks, a 19th-century hymn book, an 18th-century bust, a bow tie and AstroTurf — just some of the objects incorporated into an exhibit that seems intent on engaging multiple senses.

The tactile nature of this year's exhibition (extra "do not touch" signs may be needed) is evident right at the start with the work of Marley Dawson, the D.C. artist in the group.

The eye is immediately drawn to "Slow Burn (full circle)," which consists of a 1979 Motobecane moped perched atop a white, stationary, circular platform. An electric current connects to a device that very slowly engages the rear wheel. In the space of about two hours, the moped makes a complete rotation, leaving a rubbery smudge as it goes.

There's something wry about the work, a quality that carries over into the rest of Dawson's entry, including a series of shiny aluminum pieces mounted on the wall. They're made from decommissioned aluminum road signs that gain a certain energy from what appear to be pockmarks from bullet holes.

Also eye-catching are the brightly colored mixed-media sculptures of Kyle J. Bauer.

"There is something inherently clown-y or playful about the work," Mintz says. "And of all the artists, Kyle was perhaps the most concerned with perfection in terms of the alignment of the pieces. I can't tell you how many times we rotated a work an eighth of an inch to get the right position he wanted."

Bauer was just as painstaking in arranging and balancing the elements in each sculpture, including porcelain objects that suggest inverted bowling pins or fishing lures. A couple of the works are adorned with streamers. "Cynosure I" has a witty base covered in AstroTurf.

In terms of playfulness, it would be hard to beat Neil Feather's contribution to the show.

"He's been working on experimental sound in Baltimore for decades," Domanski says.

The experimentation on view here involves kinetic, sometimes delectably noisy music-making devices constructed out of myriad objects. When connected to power sources, they percolate and communicate with an apparent randomness and volatility that would have delighted sonic guru John Cage.

The intricately constructed objects include "The Rube Goldberg Variations," an assemblage consisting of turntable parts, film projectors, speakers and cigar boxes. The "Anaplumb," an instrument invented by Feather, incorporates magnets, a bowling ball, electromagnetic pickups and more.

There is a subtle musical element to the multifaceted work of Shannon Collis, too. She experiments with deriving sound from sheets of film with ink drawings on them; the film rotates on rollers, setting off vibrations on string.

Kyle Tata's entry is spiced with references to architect Mies van der Rohe, as in an edgy archival inkjet print titled "A Broken Shot Glass for Mies." Other prints reflect a keen interest in architectural shapes, as in the striking "Parking Garage."

Tata's glance to the past provides a smooth link to the remaining finalists, who are all about history, memory and legacy.

Lauren Frances Adams applied her strong interest in the politics of labor to a compelling installation that started with a search of the Walters' collections.

The artist sought objects that revealed people kept in slavery or servitude — a 17th-century Flemish "Bust of an African Boy" and an ancient Egyptian wall fragment depicting slaves and staffs, among others. She then infused them into the installation "Precarious Prototypes," which seems to float in and out of drapery panels painted by Adams with still more images that address the theme.

The examination of this thorny issue continues on the opposite wall in a vibrant group of gouache and acrylic drawings on paper of images, some from "Precarious Prototypes," that include Adams' analytical messages written beneath.

The written word also turns up in Stewart Watson's sizable installation "follmers fourth defluxion," an exceptionally personal and engrossing collection of her family's furniture, photographs, clothing and other mementos — a couple centuries' worth. It's like an aesthetic variation on the notion of a family tree, with thin, bent metal rods reaching, branch-like, to support keepsakes.

Perhaps the most touching component is a vintage walnut chair given to the artist by her grandmother, here floating upside down on a rod attached to a black wall. That blackness has a story, too.

"The artist incinerated another chair and used the ashes as a pigment to paint the wall," Mintz says.

One more reason the 2014 Sondheim finalists exhibit compels attention.

The exhibit runs through Aug. 17 at the Walters Art Museum.

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