Bending steel into a human allegory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For contemporary art sophisticates, Baltimore's annual Artscape festival, which begins next weekend, offers a chance to catch up on what local and regional artists are doing in relation to developments elsewhere in the art world.

But for casual viewers unschooled in the latest trends, Artscape can be an infuriating enigma. "What are these guys up to, and what are they trying to say?"

The problem isn't new. A hundred years ago, artists took up the rallying cry that the purpose of art ought to be to "shock the bourgeoisie." Today's young artists often seem bent on shocking just about everyone, including themselves.

Most often the "shock" comes in the form of objects offered as artworks that in any previous time or place would never have been considered art. The last half century has seen a momentous expansion in the kinds of objects that can be considered art and an equally revolutionary transformation in the way art is understood and appreciated.

Simply put: art today is not defined by how it looks, but by what it means. Anything can be a work of art so long as it's "about" something, and it embodies the meaning of what it is about.

One result of this new formulation is that an artwork need not be "beautiful" in the conventional sense, nor need to be made out of traditional art materials -- paint, marble, bronze, etc. It can, in fact, look like the most commonplace objects and be made of practically anything -- a famous example is Andy Warhol's "Brillo Box" of 1964, a plywood sculpture that looked exactly like the ordinary containers in which the cleaning product was shipped to stores.

What made Warhol's "Brillo Box" art and not just an ordinary box was the meaning it embodied. Warhol viewed the ordinary world of everyday objects as aesthetically beautiful, and "Brillo Box" was meant as a celebration of the visual qualities of the commonplace.

Warhol showed that the mass-produced products of industrial society could be thought of in a new way, not as a necessary evil to be tolerated merely because of their utility -- which is how artists of the 19th century might have viewed them -- but as objects of delight and beauty, what Warhol called "the poetics of the commonplace."

This "transfiguration of the commonplace," to use a phrase of the critic Arthur C. Danto, meant that there was sometimes no way of telling the difference between ordinary objects and art just by looking.

The melding of artwork and ordinary object has been the source of endless confusion, among writers on art and art historians as well for the public. The trick for critics nowadays is to get meanings from artworks that distinguish them from ordinary objects and to show how individual artworks actually embody their meanings.

A massive sculpture

For example, last week I looked at a large, outdoor sculpture by Baltimore artist Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones that will occupy a prominent site when Artscape opens next weekend. The work can be appreciated on many levels, both visually and conceptually, and as such it's an excellent introduction to many of the exciting new ideas that have been percolating in the art world over the last decade or so.

Jones' piece, titled "A Month of Sundays," is a 7-foot-tall welded steel structure that will sit atop a 42-inch-high concrete pedestal on the median strip opposite the Lyric Opera House on Mount Royal Avenue.

Jones is known primarily for her colorful paintings of African-American figures that incorporate mythological and religious themes; here she has created a sort of three-dimensional analogue of her painting style, using quarter-inch-thick steel plates cleverly cut into the shapes of people, animals and houses.

This massive structure, which is painted black and weighs nearly a ton without the pedestal, depicts a female figure with long, braided hair striding across the threshold of a house that is represented by a steel wall with a high, pitched roof and chimney at the top and a doorway cutout below that is shaped like a man wearing a slightly askew formal top hat.

In one hand, the striding woman holds a dove or bird of paradise; in the other, she clasps a small fish. Beside her, a menacing, wolf-like animal stands in the doorway facing the opposite direction, and next to the doorway two more fish, supported by a thin pole, seem to swim in endless circles.

It's easy enough to conjecture that the piece is about some sort of transition; we associate doorways with rites of passage and the changes that result from them. But what sort of change is the artist referring to?

One clue comes from the doorway's shape. In Jones' paintings, the man in the black top hat is always associated with some sort of menace or threat, as is the wolf-like creature who also occupies the doorway. But the woman is passing through this obstacle apparently unhindered, and the fact that the animal faces away from her suggests that it, too, refers to some past adversity that the woman has now overcome.

The other elements of the sculpture reinforce this theme of overcoming adversity. The fish and the dove the woman holds in her hands are both Christian symbols, as are three rough-hewn crosses cut into the doorway near the base of the sculpture. These overtly religious elements point to the possibility of spiritual transformation through trials and suffering redeemed by faith.

The meanings that I have tried to elicit from this sculpture have been confirmed by Jones, who says they are close to what she had in mind in creating it. But they do not exhaust the possible readings of the work.

For example, the fact that the piece is constructed of welded steel plate, rather than, say, plywood, embodies certain meanings unique to that material.

Steel epitomizes the industrial age. Along with concrete, it's also one of the most ubiquitous materials, constituting the backbone of everything from steamships to skyscrapers. And in the normal course of things, it is far more likely to end up in an SUV than in a work of art.

Primitive, yet powerful

Yet Jones has used this commonplace material of the industrial era to fashion a metaphor that completely transcends its age. Her work has the primitive, iconic power of a cave painting or an ancient hieroglyph, and it points to universal meanings that transfigure the otherwise unremarkable materials of which it is made.

Moreover, the plates from which Jones' figures are cut are absolutely flat when they come from the foundry. But in the sculpture she has twisted some of them in subtle ways to make her composition more dynamic. The very act of cutting and twisting a material whose primary characteristic is that it resists changes to its shape becomes a metaphor that bolsters her theme: the transformative power of the spirit redeemed by faith.

Even the work's title operates on a metaphorical level. A "month of Sundays" is a common colloquialism that expresses the idea of a "very long time." Jones has thus taken a common expression and given it uncommon significance, as the measure of the human spirit's passage through life's adversities.

This is Jones' first large-scale sculpture, and the change of medium from paint to welded steel plate necessitated a paring down of the luxuriant color, pattern and form that characterize her painting to a highly concentrated, almost austere style that, despite its apparent simplicity, perfectly embodies the work's meaning.

That Jones has been able to accomplish this in a work that is visually intriguing as well as conceptually rewarding speaks to her genius both as an artist and a woman.

If you go ...

What: Artscape

When: Friday, 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10:30 p.m.

Where: Mount Royal Avenue between Maryland Avenue and North Avenue (accessible by light rail)

Admission: Free

Call: 410-396-4575

Online: www.artscape.org

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