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Sondheim finalists' works reflect changing world

The Baltimore Sun

Paper or plastic?

That question may be a tough call for some grocery shoppers, but it doesn't faze at least one local artist whose work just went on display in a provocative new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Maren Hassinger chose both paper and plastic for the works she created for The Janet & Walter Sondheim Finalists: Artscape at the BMA, a juried exhibit featuring six visual artists who are vying for a $25,000 prize to support their careers. The show runs through Aug. 3, and the winner will be announced July 12.

For one piece, Hassinger used as her raw material the sort of plastic bags shoppers get at Super Fresh (only they're hot pink), blew up nearly 1,000 of them like balloons (many with her own breath), slipped a printed message in each one (that reads LOVE), and attached them to the walls and floor in one of the high-ceilinged Thalheimer galleries. The result is a three-dimensional smooch of a sculpture that greets visitors to the exhibit like a big wet smack on the lips. She calls it "Love."

For her second number, Hassinger shredded a small forest's worth of newspapers, gathered the strips in bunches, tied them in the middle with another newspaper strip, and stood them on end to create grasslike "continents" that rise above a sea of gray carpet. The artist got the newspaper strips to stand up like marsh grasses by twisting them the way one wrings out a wet dishrag. She says it's her way of wrenching the bad news out of the newspapers and making them less depressing. She calls her work "Wrenching News."

"The papers are always full of news about war and hatred," she explains. "I'm trying to wring it out. I'm trying to transform it."

Transformation, mutation and multiple readings are recurring themes in much of the work of the artists under consideration for the coveted Sondheim prize, which is named for the late Baltimore civic leader and his wife. This is the third year for the award, and the second in which the finalists have had a chance to show their work at the BMA. The Sondheim Six, all from Maryland or the District of Columbia, were selected from 324 artists who entered the competition, which is organized by Baltimore's Office of Promotion & the Arts in conjunction with the annual Artscape festival. The exhibit was organized by Darsie Alexander, the museum's Senior Curator of Contemporary Art.

In the same gallery as Hassinger, Dawn Gavin goes beyond continents to create whole worlds out of everyday objects. She stuck more than 30,000 metal insect pins on one wall to create an Escher-like illusion of giant globes aswirl in the universe. On the head of each pin is the fragment of a map, as if charting its place in the cosmos. Next to that creation, titled "Annular," Gavin worked with delicate strips of balsa wood, map fragments and more insect pins to create latticelike towers climbing toward heaven, like DNA systems or molecular structures on steroids. In both cases, tiny, fragile objects add up to monumental works.

Found objects play a key role in the work of Geoff Grace, a visual artist, musician and art teacher at Overlea High School. His entry, "it's the linger, not the long," juxtaposes objects large and small in a way that draws attention to both.

The large objects are three life-sized giraffes, painted with clay slip on two museum walls. All three giraffes are bending over with their heads close to the ground, as if they're foraging for nourishment. The giraffes are metaphors for museum-goers, who come in search of visual and intellectual nourishment. Grace fills the space around the giraffes with framed photographs, drawings and machine-made objects that he has collected over time. The photos range from shots of his home and neighborhood to views of the Sphinx and Great Pyramids of Egypt. The drawings are mostly of circles. Between the photos and drawings are round washers that Grace picked up off the street, now buzzing around the giraffes like so many mosquitoes.

It's a lot to absorb, as if the artist emptied out the contents of his brain and spread it over the museum's walls. Some of the long-exposure photos are enchanting, including one mystical image of sunlight streaming through his bedroom window. Other works are whimsical, including the sketch of a friendly ghost, thrown in to undercut the more serious images. With so much visual fodder, he's given the giraffes (and their human counterparts), plenty to chew on.

Multiple readings of a different sort can be found in the work of Molly Springfield, from Washington. She creates graphite drawings that look like pages of books that have been copied by a smudgy Xerox machine and hung on the wall or put under glass. But instead of replicating actual pages, she manipulates the images by hand so they deform and contort in ways that would never happen with the most maniacal copy machine.

Two more artists explore the relationship between manmade and natural landscapes. Melissa Dickenson draws animal and plant life and imaginary landscapes on handmade paper, evoking Japanese prints. Her work has an ephemeral, cartoon-like quality that suggests how difficult it is for nature to survive in an ever-advancing technological world. Becky Alprin creates scale models of imaginary landscapes, manmade and natural. Since they aren't real places, one can also read them as pure explorations of geometrical form.

A juried show such as this is enlightening, because it doesn't have one overriding point of view, and yet it hints at the wide range of ideas contemporary artists are investigating these days. Alexander, the curator, did an exceptional job of sparking visual conversations between the artists in the way she paired two per gallery. One can't help but pick up on their common notions about the transitory nature of art, vulnerability, memory loss and the increasing scarcity of handmade objects in general.

With so much creativity on display, it will be a challenge to pick a winner, but several of the works elicit a stronger response than others.

Dickenson's drawings represent an intriguing twist on a traditional Japanese art form, for those familiar with it. Gavin shows she can take a big idea and execute it beautifully. Alprin's landscapes are well executed, too, but they have certain abstract quality that makes them hard to relate to - like a Christmastime train garden before the model trains go in. The contoured hillsides look pleasant enough, but many of the hardscape areas are jarring and frenetic - environments that might not be much fun to inhabit.

Grace has been a semifinalist or finalist every year the prize has been offered. His giraffe-feeding extravaganza works on a variety of levels, so perhaps the third time will be the charm for him.

For serious commentary about the human condition, Springfield's tortured texts offer a sobering look at the ways we use and abuse language. But the actual artwork, with its intentional smudges and flaws, is hardly beautiful in a traditional sense.

Which brings us back to Hassinger. Her two pieces reveal her to be at once the angriest of the six artists and the most optimistic - expressing outrage at what she reads in the newspaper and sheer confidence that we can all find love in a shopping bag (because she put it there).

Some would say her LOVE tree is full of hot air, and they'd be right. But it's also one of the most accessible pieces in the show and the one that packs the biggest wallop. It puts a smile on your face, while forcing you to think. If the judges want to recognize an artist whose work has powerful emotional content as well as technical proficiency, Hassinger would be a solid choice.

One might even say she's got it in the bag.

If you go

The Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists: Artscape at the BMA runs through Aug. 3 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or go to

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