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A COLLAGE OF IDEAS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there is a common theme linking the finalists for the Janet & Walker Sondheim Prize, it may be that the methods of creating art can be as important as the art itself.

"This year is a very process-oriented, installation-based type of show," says Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator with the Baltimore Office for Promotion in the Arts, which created the prize to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Artscape in 2006. "It is a good mix of people, representing a good mix of ideas."

Those ideas include finding the artistic potential in dirt, photocopied books, recycled materials, barren parking lots, a polar bear's heart rate and even vintage cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

The finalists were selected from more than 300 applicants living in the Baltimore/Washington region. One will be selected by a jury for the $25,000 prize on July 11.

Baltimore Development Cooperative

Art and activism meet. The cooperative, founded in 2005 by three Maryland Institute College of Art grads - Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester and Nicholas Wisniewski - has made its most prominent mark on the city through Participation Park in East Baltimore. Created out of a vacant lot, the park offers urban farming and a place for the community to socialize.

The cooperative's activities are represented by two items in the Sondheim exhibit. Outdoors on the Baltimore Museum of Art terrace sits a geodesic dome made from a colorful collection of recycled materials, housing a table and benches where museum visitors are welcome to spend some time.

Inside the BMA, a large sculptural object confronts viewers, suggesting a giant toy construction crane that is about to roll through the museum on its cardboard tracks. Also made up of recycled bits and pieces, the crane doesn't just symbolize over-development. Closer inspection reveals what Berzofsky describes as "a montage of different buildings in Baltimore," fashioned out of odds and ends that evoke a jumbled, menacing view of our own cityscape.

Leslie Furlong

Baltimore-based Furlong, 40, takes a look at contemporary landscape in distinctive ways, inspired in part by Wolfgang Schivelbusch's book The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century.

A two-channel video installation, Tokyo to Osaka, offers the view out of rain-streaked train windows. Periodically, the sight of gray buildings is interrupted by sudden bursts of green. "There are these tiny agrarian plots of land every now and then," Furlong says. "I wanted to riff off the flashes of agrarian land in this deep urban landscape."

The video is complemented by an arresting series of large digital photographs that use "empty parking lots as a base of reference." Far off on the horizon of these pictures, beneath gray skies, can be seen housing developments, shopping centers and the like - what Furlong calls "icons of modern-day American landscapes. It's a little post-apocalyptic in a way," she says. "No people, no cars."

Ryan Hackett

"My work explores what we consider natural and synthetic worlds - and the space in between," says the 33-year-old artist, who lives in Kensington. His provocative pieces include the synthetic skull of a white Siberian tiger, with headphones attached for listeners to hear what Hackett describes as a "vocalization" of the animal, all the while bathed in the light of two lamps of the type used to treat seasonal affective disorder.

On the walls of the museum gallery are painted white shells that emit digitally treated clips of cicada sounds, a Greek chorus commenting continually on the art in the room. On the floor rests a bench covered in fake white fur, concealing a subwoofer that unleashes deep rumbling bass tones that imitate the beats-per-minute of a polar bear's heart during a near-hibernation state called carnivore lethargy.

"I think a lot about the psychology of the bass sound filling the body, the kind of sound you hear from passing cars," Hackett says. "I made the bench in San Francisco, which was not good. People thought it was an earthquake."

Jessie Lehson

"I like the fact that people don't realize it's dirt," Lehson says of Grounding II, an installation on a gallery room floor. Inspired by a design on the floor of the BMA's Atrium Court, the work consists of four large, rectangular shapes that suggest earth-toned carpeting. It's real earth, collected primarily from the region by the 30-year-old Baltimore artist. "Color is important to me," she says. "The orange-looking dirt is from Baltimore, the really red one from Virginia."

Lehson also incorporates Buddhist principles, especially the mandala, into her work. The floor installation is meant "to create a real quiet space," she says. Although visitors can't step on Grounding II, the act of contemplating the sifted, painstakingly arranged soil is calming in itself.

Same for the artist's outdoor installation, Growth & Decay, a low wall of bricks made of soil, straw and sand. On the top layer, wildflower seeds have been implanted. "That layer is eventually going to start growing as the whole thing decomposes," she says. "Theoretically, the [wall] will go back into the earth." As for Grounding II, the dirt will be vacuumed up when the exhibit is over - "It's kind of fun, actually" -and carted away for use in future art projects.

Molly Springfield

Marcel Proust's multivolume novel ? la recherche du temps perdu - commonly known in English as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time - is daunting enough to read. Consider what Springfield has done in a 28-drawing art work called "Translation."

The 31-year-old D.C.-based artist gathered copies of the existing English editions of the first book in the Proust series, Swann's Way, and photocopied the first chapter of each one, two pages at a time. "Then I put together my own translation," Springfield says. Mixing the photocopies from the various editions, she painstakingly re-created those pages by hand in graphite, like a monk copying a book in the Middle Ages.

Each distinctive typeface is captured; underlining or notes penciled in the margins by Springfield in any of the books used before the photocopying are, in turn, reproduced again in the final artwork. "I tried to create the actual experience of recollection, in the way the novel does," the artist says. "Repetitions and omissions that happen from page to page parallel the experience of remembering."

Karen Yasinsky

A highly regarded French film from 1966, Au hasard Balthazar, triggered a variety of responses in Yasinsky's work in this display. The 44-year-old Baltimore-based artist created a stop-motion puppet animation, I Choose Darkness, that presents the central characters - a farm girl named Marie and her donkey, Balthazar - and the issues of abuse raised in the original movie directed by Robert Bresson. "He was famous for using actors as models who just moved through the film, not interpreting their lines," Yasinsky says. "That's like my puppets."

The nine-minute animation shows the Marie figure meeting two male figures, one who treats her nicely, one who doesn't respect her or the donkey. Bad things happen. "Violence is something we have to deal with, especially in Baltimore, every day," the artist says. "My 5-year-old has asked some difficult questions after seeing the film, and I find that invigorating. You have to come up with your own interpretation of what happens [in the animation]."

Yasinsky's collages on paper in the exhibit continue the Au hasard Balthazar themes, with a twist. Appearing in some of these works is the sight-impaired figure of Mr. Magoo. "I wanted an iconic cartoon character to make an appearance," the artist says. "Mr. Magoo never judged anything, he just walked into a scene oblivious to what was going on."

If you go

The exhibit of the Sondheim Prize Finalists is on display through Aug. 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. For more information, call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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