Four artists bring different measures of 'Soul' to museum exhibit

"Body and Soul," which opened yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is a challenging exhibit of contemporary artists dealing with compelling, even controversial subject matter. It is not, however, uniformly successful.

BMA curator of modern painting and sculpture Brenda Richardson invited four artists (including one artist collaborative) create one installation each. These deal with issues as wide-ranging as AIDS, censorship, coming out or living a lie, and trying to rewrite your place in history. Two of them succeed, one is more problematic (though a memorable concept), and one must be counted a confusing if gutsy failure.


General Idea, the Toronto-based art collaboration, has been creating works about AIDS since 1986. Its installation "One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT," when described, sounds simple and even boring; experienced, it's overwhelming.

It consists of five 7-foot-long fiberglass sculptures of AZT pills, one day's dose of the AIDS medication, on the floor; and attached to the walls of the 30-foot-high gallery from floor to ceiling, 1,825 smaller, wall-relief versions of the AZT pill, a year's dose.


Surrounded by these pills marching relentlessly up and down the walls, you can't help having the enormity of AIDS brought home to you. But this work is more than that. You're overcome not only by recognition of the crushing weight of mortality that HIV-positive people must bear, but with the crushing weight of your own mortality. The pills become the days of your life, and as they start, so they stop.

Cindy Sherman's two photographic series are also remarkable, and though they seem to have little in common at first, it's fitting that they be shown together. For the "Sex Pictures" she photographed plastic medical mannequins, showing their sexual parts. For the "Deterioration Pictures," she photographed rotting fruits and vegetables in extreme close-up over a two-year period. In both cases, the effect is the opposite of what might be imagined.

The "Sex Pictures" take a volatile subject and deal with it in a way that is at once clinical and ugly, robbing it of any possible prurient interest and at the same time commenting on the silliness of censorship. These "naked people" couldn't possibly arouse any sexual interest, and who would censor medical mannequins?

The "Deterioration Pictures" don't look like rotting fruits and vegetables; they look like creatures from sci-fi movies or prehistoric animals in surreal landscapes, and their depth and richness of color are positively gorgeous. They take a subject that's by its very nature disgusting and make it eerily fascinating and, in its own way, beautiful.

"Petrarch's Air" is an opera still in progress with story and libretto by sculptor Ronald Jones and music by Todd Levin. Telling a story of Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, insanely attempting to restore his reputation by blowing up the world, the opera deals with self-delusion and the folly of trying to rewrite one's place in history.

The BMA installation consists of Jones' set designs for the opera and a tape recording of the first act, lasting about 25 minutes. If one gives it that much time, the work becomes hypnotizing, entrancing. The problem is that most people won't do that -- or at least they didn't when I was there yesterday; and if you give the work only a walk-through, or even a few minutes, it's mostly lost on you.

The final installation, "Invisible Man," is by Nayland Blake. Blake is gay, the son of an interracial marriage (black father, white mother) and light-skinned enough to pass for white. His work deals with "passing," or lying by omission.

It's a universal theme, for we all let ourselves pass for something we're not sometime or other. But Blake has made his installation of too many disparate parts, from the play "Harvey" to African art to magicians' hats to videos to a doll's house and so on and on. It takes far too much explaining to put into a wall text, and when fully explained, it's too complicated to have the desired effect. It can be understood, but it doesn't hit you. It's far too overproduced for its own good, and so it fails.



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; through Oct. 9

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

$ Call: (410) 396-7100