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Dealing with issues from AIDS to porn, artists put it all on the line 'BODY AND SOUL'

In one gallery, there will be 1,830 enlarged versions of AZT pills.

In the next, the set designs and part of the music from an opera in which Jack Ruby tries to make an atom bomb on the moon.

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In the next, a man in a rabbit suit dealing with issues of personal identity.

And in the last, photographs of nude medical mannequins and photographs of rotting fruits and vegetables.

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Those are the parts of "Body and Soul," an exhibit opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art Wednesday that deals with issues from AIDS to pornography.

"The show is about putting your body and soul on the line by addressing issues of tremendous personal impact to all of us," says BMA curator of modern painting and sculpture Brenda Richardson, who organized this show of contemporary art in anticipation of the opening of the museum's new wing for modern art this fall.

In creating the show, "I knew what I wanted," Richardson says. "I wanted to show a few contemporary artists who are committed to work that is visually very strong but with a subtext. Straight-out political art doesn't interest me so much. What interests me the most is the tradition of visual art that tends to abstraction, but still talks about the world we live in. Art that's challenging, that makes us think. And these artists fit into that category."

The exhibit consists of four installations, one in each of the museum's main temporary exhibition galleries. The artists are nationally and internationally known. The sculptor Ronald Jones and the photographer Cindy Sherman are based in New York, the sculptor and installation artist Nayland Blake is based in San Francisco, and the three-artist collaborative General Idea is based in Toronto.

Agony of AIDS

General Idea's will no doubt be the most poignant work in the show, for it is about AIDS, and two of the three artist-collaborators have died of AIDS since the beginning of this year, the second as recently as two weeks ago.

In "One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT," five 7-foot-long fiberglass sculptures of AZT pills, representing one day's dose of the AIDS medication, rest on the floor of the gallery. All around them, attached to the walls of the 30-foot-high gallery from floor to ceiling, are 1,825 smaller, wall-relief versions of the AZT pill, a year's dose.

General Idea has been creating works on AIDS since 1986, works that have been shown worldwide on everything from billboards and subways to the cover of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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The surviving member of General Idea, speaking by telephone from Toronto recently, says their work on AIDS doesn't have a specific meaning.

"There's no message," says A. A. Bronson. "It's more to raise thoughts and consciousness than to give a particular opinion or viewpoint. The work is not didactic as such."

But it is designed to influence. "Hopefully the main effect is that it provokes response and discussion," Bronson says. "AIDS is sort of like cancer was in the '60s. If you have it, you're not supposed to talk about it. AIDS patients are untouchable. Now cancer is quite a different thing.

"If we want results, the main one is that AIDS could be perceived by the general public like any other disease."

The Baltimore showing of "One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT," the first on the East Coast, will be dedicated to the memory of Bronson's two collaborators, Jorge Zontal, who died in February, and Felix Partz, who died June 5.

Some fresh 'Air'

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"Petrarch's Air" is the title of an opera by sculptor Ronald Jones. "It grew out of the fact that my earlier work had very long titles," says Jones while installing his work at the BMA. "It occurred to me that the format was operatic, formal sculptures becoming stage sets for epic stories. So I thought that opera was a form I could use."

The opera, which is not yet completed, has a story and libretto by the artist and music by composer Todd Levin.

The story takes place on the moon, where Lee Harvey Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby, is trying to make an atom bomb with the assistance of German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Ruby has the insane idea that he can restore his reputation by blowing up the world.

"It's about the futility of trying to revise your position in history and how apocalyptic and eschatological that can become," Jones says. "And about someone's sense of righteous will taking precedence over everything else, including destroying the world."

Jones' installation at the BMA consists of tiny sculptures that are the set designs for his opera, attached to the wall through pictures of partial moonscapes with the black sky above. During the show, a 25-minute tape recording of the completed first act of the opera will play.

Identity in a rabbit suit

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Nayland Blake, who is gay and the son of an interracial marriage, is light-skinned enough to pass for white. In his work, he addresses the subject of "passing" or lying by omission -- allowing people to assume you are something you are not (i.e., that you are white when you are part black, that you are straight when you are gay).

Blake's installation will involve a stage setting and a video of the artist in a white rabbit suit. The rabbit refers to Harvey, the invisible 6-foot-tall rabbit in the play of the same name. The rabbit also refers to the fact that rabbits live both above and below the ground, visible and invisible. Dressed in his rabbit suit, Blake will be the "Invisible Man," a title that refers to Ralph Ellison's 1952 book about black life in America.

"The piece is very much about a personal search for meaning and connection to the world," Blake says. It explores "the way in which people of color and gay people are kind of at the margins of society."

He, too, declined to ascribe a didactic purpose to his work. "The work is the vehicle by which I can come to some understanding about my racial identity or my sexual identity. . . . I'm not teaching somebody a lesson about gayness or about race, because I don't feel like an expert in those things in general. I only know about my own experience."

Sexual censorship

Cindy Sherman became well-known in the 1980s for her photographs of herself as various figures, from people in movies to portrait subjects to characters in fairy tales. But for her last two series, which will be featured at the BMA, she did not use herself.

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In the "Sex Pictures" of 1992, she photographed plastic mannequins from a medical supply house, often putting them in grotesque positions and revealing their sexual parts as a comment, in part, on pornography and censorship.

"I think what's interesting to me about the issue of pornography and censorship in relation to this work is that these images are really just bits of plastic and medical parts. . . . There are no human beings involved and nothing organic," she says.

The other series, which will have its debut in Baltimore, is called "Deterioration Pictures," and for it Sherman photographed fruits and vegetables in stages of deterioration over a period of a year or more. But they were filmed in extreme close-up, resulting in abstract images that can be interpreted in various ways. Some can be seen as animals or landscapes.

"I tried to choose an image as hard to identify as possible," the artist says.

If there is a connection between the "Sex Pictures" and the "Deterioration Pictures," Sherman thinks it may have to do with abstraction and representation.

"In a way the 'Sex Pictures' as they progressed became more abstract. . . . And the 'Deterioration Pictures' in a way became more realistic-looking, if you read it as a landscape, or if you interpret seeing little animals in there."

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In a statement rare in its candor, Sherman says that in making the blown-up, full-size prints of the "Deterioration Pictures," she used a new printing process with disappointing results.

"They lost a lot of the color and nuance that are in the original slides," Sherman says. "I think the 'Sex Pictures' are going to come off as much more powerful. At this point, I'm in a sort of disappointed state. I just saw the blowups of the 'Deterioration Pictures' yesterday, and I was let down that they didn't look as beautiful as I'd hoped. I'd say to people that I still feel stronger about the 'Sex Pictures.' "

ART ON THE LINE

What: "Body and Soul"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, this Wednesday through Oct. 9

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Admission: $5.50 adults; $3.50 seniors and students; $1.50 ages 7 through 18; free on Thursdays

Call: (410) 396-7100


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