I can already anticipate the response many viewers may have on first seeing Thomas Hirshhorn's mixed-media sculpture Chandelier With Hands (2006), which goes on view today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Omigod! What is that?
Or, But is it art?
Hirshhorn's unusual work, which looks like a cross between a giant meat rack dripping bloody slabs of beef and some sort of diabolical jungle gym, is one of the BMA's most spectacular recent acquisitions.
It forms the centerpiece of the exhibition Ripple Effect, which explores how each new artwork to enter the collection enriches, modifies or comments upon the meaning of those already there.
"A collection is a dynamic and changing entity," says BMA senior curator for contemporary art Darsie Alexander, who organized the show as part of the museum's Front Room series of cutting-edge art exhibitions.
"One of the things that a truly eclectic collection such as ours gives us is a unique capacity to put contemporary artworks in dialogue with one another and with works of the past," Alexander adds.
Hirshhorn's work, in fact, belongs to a long tradition of avant-garde sculpture fashioned from nontraditional, throwaway materials. Chandelier With Hands, for example, consists of a cruciform assembly of rough pine boards, sticky plastic tape, store-mannequin odds and ends and brown garbage bags stuffed with bubble wrap.
Yet the work also resonates powerfully with the great themes embodied by important masterpieces in the collection, both contemporary and traditional.
Store-mannequin hands mounted atop Hirshhorn's skeletal framework of boards, for example, recall the lovely hands of nude figures photographed by Andres Kertesz and Elmer Bischoff and the more ambiguous images of hands by Robert Gober and William Klein.
Yet all of them, in the context of this exhibition, complement and comment on Hirshhorn's use of the motif.
Likewise, the themes of slaughter and violent death in Andy Warhol's electric-chair silk screens and Bruce Nauman's neon sculpture Raw, War, which Alexander brought out for the show, find their visual counterpoints in Hirshhorn's bloody meat rack.
The fleshy shapes shrouded in his plastic garbage bags echo both Dora Maar's photographs of death-camp uniforms and Philip Guston's ominous Klan robes.
And the crosslike construction of Chandelier itself evokes the tragedy of innocent suffering expressed in the countless crucifixions and martyrdoms in Christian religious painting.
Alexander has juxtaposed several of these wrenching images alongside Chandelier: Crucifixion by the Renaissance master Albrecht Altdorfer, St. Sebastian Bound to a Tree by his great contemporary, Albrecht Durer, and the 20th-century Descent From the Cross by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann.
Among the most resonant correspondences are the engravings from Goya's monumental Disasters of War series, the artist's personal reflection on the brutality of Napoleon's invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814.
A number of these works depict horrific scenes of human depravity and cruelty, including one in which the dismembered corpses of slain fighters strung from the branches of a tree find an exact visual counterpoint in Hirshhorn's dangling slabs of meat.
"[Hirshhorn's work is] very much about the pain and suffering in the world," says Alexander.
"It is a work that responds to some of the most urgent issues of our times with some of the most innovative materials of our era," she adds by way of explaining why garbage bags and hardware-store lumber qualify as art.
"Often, some of the most important works of art are the ones that perplex, challenge and provoke us into new ways of thought," she says.
"Ripple Effect" runs through Sept. 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.