If you want to know what's going on in the world today, just step inside an art gallery. You won't see any pretty pictures there. Instead, many current exhibits are tackling urgent social and political problems head-on.
Two cases in point -- exhibits at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Museum for Contemporary Arts -- are even within easy walking distance of each other. Though not directly related, these exhibits raise a number of the same issues. And it seems a significant coincidence that the installations for both exhibits feature video monitors on which the projected images include yours, implicating you into the larger social picture. Gosh, and just when you thought you could casually browse without committing yourself.
The Maryland Institute exhibit, "Beyond Glory: Re-Presenting Terrorism," includes the work of more than 30 artists. They may share a liberal humanist agenda, but there is no party line when it comes to artistic method or subject matter. Some deal with specific political events in near-documentary detail, while others are more symbolic in approach.
Of them all, the artist most directly reminding us of how political art can function on a large scale in a public setting is Krysztof Wodiczko, whose nocturnal slide shows project charged images against the sides of monumental buildings. Here he's represented by photo documentation of several past outdoor endeavors, including slides of missiles that were projected against the imposing bulk of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Most of the other artists create work that's meant for indoor installation. They also generally tend to use particular political scenarios as a point of departure for a more universal consideration. The title of Luis Cruz Azaceta's painting "Latin American Victims of Dictators" makes a specific reference, for instance, but the actual image of a bound, screaming political prisoner is more generic. That this painting is installed behind a chain-link fence is also typical of how these installation-oriented artists incorporate materials associated with containment and repression.
How appropriate that Azaceta's painting faces a painting by Leon Golub, "Mercenaries I," in which gun-wielding terrorists carry a tied up prisoner as if he were a captured animal. An inspirational father figure of sorts to younger political artists, Golub in characteristic fashion is both excruciatingly blunt and non-specific with this image.
And installed near the Golub painting is Mel Chin's "Jilavia Prison Bed (for a priest who was tortured in a Romanian prison)," which would be just as creepy an artwork even if you didn't know its inspiration. Chin's simple installation presents a cross-shaped bed in which five metal spikes poke through the old mattress. A naked light bulb hangs next to the bed. The stark insistence of this piece overrides the risk of slipping into cliche with the interrogation-evocative bare light bulb. As in Chin's sculptures, he comes up with deceptively simple forms that reverberate in memory with as much pain as you'd feel after spending a night on a bed of nails.
It is perhaps inevitable that an exhibit about acts of violence would include a work of art made through a violent act. Gregory Green has anuntitled work on paper in which he blasted that paper with 12-gauge shotgun shells. There are now jagged RTC craters pockmarking the paper. It's a scary image, but considered as abstract art it's somehow beautiful, too. A pretty picture, after all.
Nearby, the Museum for Contemporary Arts has temporarily taken over the former Pat Hays Buick dealership in the same spirit as when it mounted previous exhibits at such seemingly unlikely sites as the Famous Ballroom and Greyhound service terminal. Walking up a ramp to the second-floor installation, visitors there confront a multi-media work by New Orleans artist Dawn Dedeaux called "Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths."
Confrontation is the operative word, what with orange neon tubing lining the central corridor of Dedeaux's installation. Its walls are lined with video-based photographic images of darkly silhouetted figures in violent poses. A hellish glow encompasses them. Just as there is no escaping those images, a rap-based soundtrack hammers in our ears.
Farther along is a room full of hand-painted photographs of a young black man posing with both guns and spears, connecting the warrior myths of today with those of the past. Video booths on the fringe of the installation present a lot of crude and depressing first-hand commentary on the toll urban violence takes on people swept up in that lifestyle. Most depressing of all are the comments of a man who is proud of the gun medallion he has given to his young daughter as a gift. He says it hangs around her neck to convey the message: "Don't mess with me."
Adjacent to Dedeaux's installation is another room in which children from the Woodbourne Center, a Baltimore treatment facility for troubled youths, have collaborated on self-expressive artworks with local artists Kauna and Kibibi Ajanku-Mujamal, Ardai Baharmast, Angela Franklin, Katherine Kendall and Sherwin Mark. The therapeutic function of art has some touching examples here.
"Beyond Glory: Re-Presenting Terrorism" remains in the Decker and Meyerhoff galleries of the Maryland Institute College of Art, at 1300 Mount Royal Ave., through March 15. Film and video programs have also been scheduled for the length of the exhibit. Call (410) 225-2300.
"Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths" and The Woodbourne Workshops may be seen at the Museum for Contemporary Arts, at 1111 Cathedral St., through Feb. 23. Call (410) 462-3515.