If there's one word that sums up the principal concern expressed by contemporary art shows in 1993 it's "identity."
In a world in which instant communication breaks down old barriers, in which poverty, famine and crime threaten the social order, in which old values seem not to matter, people are increasingly in search of a place to call home. That is reflected in the art we see.
There are two major kinds of identity. One is cultural, the other psychological.
Cultural identity is a broad term that can refer to such things as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, economic and social status.
In 1993, cultural identity was directly addressed in a show called "Ciphers of Identity" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in November. It explored how artists from diverse communities have defined cultural identity in today's politically charged climate. What most of the artists dealt with, however, was how difficult defining identity can be.
The most frequent shows dealing with a specific group addressed African-American identity. "Through Sisters' Eyes: Children's Books Illustrated by African-American Women Artists," at the Peale Museum, clearly reflected a desire to give African-American children a sense of identity. As Carole Byard, one of the artists, said, "I wanted to illustrate books relevant to the lives of black children because I could not find them when I was growing up."
In "Five Baltimore Artists" at Maryland Art Place in October, Angela Franklin's works dealt with the layered heritage of African-Americans -- the need for how it is necessary to have a consciousness of the African as well as the American past. And Oletha Devane's "The Quest" was about searching that layered heritage for a sense of individual identity.
Other artists whose works deal with aspects of African-American identity include Romare Bearden, Chester Higgins Jr., Tom Miller, Arvie Smith and Schroeder Cherry.
"Confluence" at Goucher College and "Crosscurrents" at the University of Maryland at College Park dealt with Japanese-Americans' search for identity, while the BMA's show of Inuit (Eskimo) wall hangings reflected a people's desire to remember disappearing traditions.
School 33's "Spring 1993 Juried Exhibition" explored both male and female gender identity, while the photographs of Robert Flynt at Nye Gomez (now Gomez Gallery) and "Queering Family Values" at MAP explored homosexual identity.
Psychological identity is the desire to find -- or the fear of losing -- a sense of self, a source of strength within. The subject surfaced in various forms.
"Intimacy of Fear" at the now defunct BAUhouse included works by Ted P. Metzler on the loss of individuality and by Shane Hull on the lack of self-knowledge. In her show at the Steven Scott Gallery, Hollis Sigler, an artist stricken with recurrent cancer, dealt with the sense of identity to be found in everyday life.
"Women Image Women" at the Baltimore Life Gallery was in part about the sense of aloneness that we all feel at times. At Galerie Francoise, Karen Acker questioned the possibility of individual identity and Emilio Cruz questioned the possibility of identity surviving death, a position that was also taken by Sharron Antholt's works in a show at MAP.
Deborah Donelson's paintings at Gomez reflect, in her own words, her "scratching around for fragments of being," while the "Fragments" show at School 33 involved artists trying to build something whole from fragments of identity.
Determining how much closer we are to knowing who we are will differ with the individual. But the artists in these shows are doing three valuable things at once: 1) they're searching for their own identities; 2) they're offering us the results of that search; and 3) they're showing us how it's done.
The identity shows, taken together, amount to a major development on the Baltimore art scene, and it will be interesting to see to what degree this trend continues in 1994.
THE YEAR IN ART
There were individual exhibitions at local museums and galleries that constituted high points of the year. Following are the best of them, in chronological order:
* "Sisley," at the Walters Art Gallery, brought us the art of Alfred Sisley, the quintessential but probably least known of the major impressionists. The serene beauty of his quiet art caresses the eye, charms the mind and soothes the spirit.
* Sue Coe is a sociopolitical artist whose burning convictions inform her work with relentless force. "Sue Coe: Current Events, Prints and Drawings," at Maryland Art Place, dealt with issues from the Persian Gulf War to the meat-slaughtering industry, and indicated that if viewers are not part of the solution, we're certainly part of the problem.
* Mel Kendrick's sculptures, at C. Grimaldis Gallery, were about art history, specifically the early modernism of cubism, futurism and constructivism. But there was another dimension: they were filled with emotion and aspiration, suffering and hope. They possessed a very American combination of humility and assertiveness.
* "Classical Maryland," at the Maryland Historical Society, and "Classical Taste in America," at the Baltimore Museum of Art, explored this country's fine and decorative arts of the early 19th century. Both shows were highly informative and had gorgeous moments.
* "A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker," at the BMA, contained a full measure of the rich works of the late African-American artist. He created images that speak of the effort to find a commonality of heritage in a polyglot world.
* "The Print and Drawing Society's 25th Anniversary Exhibit," at the BMA, included 75 works selected from the society's hundreds of donations. There was lots of superb art by the likes of Durer, Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and others.
* "Contemporary East European Ceramics," presented by Baltimore's museum without walls, the Contemporary, at St. Stanislaus Convent in Fells Point, consisted of 150 works by 73 artists from 15 countries. These artists make work that's largely figural, strong and full of feeling.
* Grace Hartigan's show at Grimaldis revealed that this artist, who emerged as a leading 1950s abstract expressionist, continues to create works that vibrate with life.
Three of the best of 1993 are still open:
* "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia," at the Walters (through Jan. 9), presents the history of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity through manuscripts, icons, crosses and coins. The work is bursting with color and pattern, to the extent that it sometimes becomes almost abstract.
* "The William S. Paley Collection," at the BMA (through Jan. 9), includes significant works of the late 19th and early 20th century by artists including Degas, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. The collection has a classical feel to it, in the sense of beauty, order and restraint that permeate much of the work.
* "Touch: Beyond the Visual," at School 33 Art Center (through Jan. 14), contains 21 artists' works that can be handled. The show's main point is to teach those who can see that art should be explored through more than one sense.