The generally greater sensitivity to cultural differences manifest during the 1990s has had a notable effect on the art of our time.
Women artists and artists of color now look for inspiration outside the cultural "mainstream" that long was defined as exclusively Western, bourgeois and male. Even the notion of a "mainstream" has become hotly contested.
Too, the increasingly articulate voices of women and minorities, nationally and globally, have moved the issue of personal identity to the forefront of aesthetic as well as political concerns.
African-American artists such as Kara Walker, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems all have challenged long-standing racial stereotypes in their work. Meanwhile, artists such as David Hammons and Adrian Piper have taken a more conceptual approach to the deconstruction of racial images.
The textile artwork of Sonya Clark, whose fantastic African-inspired headwear is currently on display at Galerie Francoise in Lutherville, straddles the boundary between object-oriented and conceptual art.
Clark's artworks are ostensibly hats or headwraps inspired by African textile design. In fact, they are complex symbolic objects that evoke multiple meanings and interpretations -- of the body, ancestry, healing and religious ritual.
For Clark, who has made a careful study of traditional African headwear, the physical body is a metaphor for the larger social body, and the head is the seat of intelligence and the soul. To adorn the head is thus to adopt a visual language that projects the wearer's identity to the outside world.
Her headwraps and hats are magical and whimsical by turn, objects meant not primarily to be worn but to signify.
As an example of the blending of cultures and styles signified by headwear, Clark notes the adaptation of the European powdered wig in Africa and the Caribbean as a sign of political authority.
"In Nigeria it gets reinterpreted through [such] materials as white beaded hats that have the form of the wig," she says. "So first there was the adoption of [something] considered majestic in European culture, then there was adaptation through the traditional beading technique.
"This residue of cross-pollenization between cultures is exciting to me. In a single object one can trace cultural influence," Clark says. "To this end, I have drawn from African and American sources in form, color symbolism, cultural use and technique."
Clark's show at Galerie Francoise continues through Nov. 3.
Hildebrandt on exhibit
C. Grimaldis Gallery presents a group sculpture show and solo exhibition of paintings by Bernhard Hildebrandt through Oct. 31.
The sculptors Wade Saunders, Costas Varotsos, Osami Tanaka, Daithi O'Glaisain and John Ruppert are postminimal artists who have adopted various forms of eccentric abstraction -- a reaction against the impersonal, machine-like perfection of the classic Minimalist cube.
Ruppert's "Echo Series II," for example, consists of bronze casts of stones that the artist presents alongside the originals from which they were made and from which visually they are barely distinguishable.
The result is a somewhat mannered commentary on the relationship between art and nature and our ability to perceive the difference between them. It's a strategy that owes a lot to certain French poststructural critical theorists but doesn't mean much outside that rarefied context.
Costas Varotsos' sculpture "Horizon (Connecting Vessels)," by contrast, is a delightful visual pun constructed out of the artist's signature steel and green plate glass that manages to describe both the water and the wave that passes through it.
Hildebrandt presents two kinds of paintings -- large canvases covered with blue enamel paint on which various gestural marks are recorded and smaller white paintings made of wax and enamel on panel.
This work recalls Abstract Expressionist art of the 1950s, with its emphasis on process -- on the act of painting rather than the image painted -- as well as Asian brush painting.
Both shows continue at Grimaldis through Oct. 31.
Imboden at the Gomez
Photographer Connie Imboden's work is featured at the Gomez Gallery through Dec. 5. Imboden's startling reformulations of the human body have made her one of the most interesting art photographers working today.
The Gomez show includes a half-dozen familiar images of beautiful nude bodies in water from Imboden's early years, plus new images of teeth, faces and feet that some viewers will find truly frightening.
Also at Gomez: Venezuelan painter Luis Lara and jewelry maker Lauren Schott, whose gem-studded rings, necklaces and bracelets of hammered, 22-karat gold are as cunning in their construction as they are lovely.
Here and there
The Montage Gallery on South Charles Street is the venue for a group show of mostly local artists through the end of the month. The prints and other works on paper by Youngmi Song suggest a talent that bears watching.
Across the street at Resurgem Gallery, a group show organized by Jennifer von Muehlen of Tzigane Fine Arts presents paintings, prints and sculptures on the theme "Transition: Mind or Media."
Bendann Gallery in North Baltimore celebrates its 140th anniversary with a group show featuring traditional landscapes, still lifes and marine paintings by regional artists, through Nov. 6.