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Critical Paths
MAP's Annual Residency Program Offers A Nuanced Chance To Look At The Thinking That Shapes Looking
Frank Hallum Day's "Beauty Taped To The Door"

 

Baby Martinez' "An Outdoor Sign Is Stolen, Sanded, Repainted, And Returned To The Store Before It Reopens The Following Day"

 

Tony Shore's "Alternator"

 

Karen Yasinsky's "La Nuit."

ROAD TO THE RESIDENCY: (from top) Anne Chen's "One Among Many,' Maria Karametou's "Ifanto," Alzaruba's "This Way And That," Ben Piwowar's "Of This Much We Are Certain (I)."

 

21st Annual Critics' Residency Program

Twenty one years of commitment to a programmatic concept is a mighty and steadfast thing. Maryland Art Place is to be celebrated and commended for this fundamental degree of engagement with its annual Critics' Residency Program.

In this essentially farmer-in-the-dell approach to curating and criticism, MAP annually selects two celebrated art world professionals to extend the picking circle. Art in America's Eleanor Heartney and freelance writer, professor, and alternative arts administrator Irving Sandler are the two luminaries for this 21st annual installment. They, in turn, selected inventive artists who relish divergent materials and techniques to present a compatible dialogue throughout MAP's three galleries. It's one that is formally fluent and texturally lush, and fluctuates between two and three dimensions. Additionally, it's one that provides a little gristle for young critics to chew on.

The eight artists that Heartney and Sandler chose from 100 applicants include Alzaruba, Anne Chan, Breon Gilleran, Maren Hassinger, Maria Karametou, Ben Piwowar, Sofia Silva, and Mary Walker, all of whom have close Baltimore connections of one brand or another. Heartney and Sandler then selected two rising arts writers--Al Miner and Ding Ren--from a smaller pool of 11 to visit the artists' studios, devise critical topics that surfaced, and develop and defend their arguments.

The entire process from start to finish is a great benefit to all involved. The New York critics return to art's outer regions to remember how it is for artists who, outside of self-promoting charisma or insider connections, do not land straight away on the legend-making pages of NYC arts media. The artists have the wonderful, rarified benefit of having serious art critics looking at and questioning their work. The apprentice critics get to meet and deliberate with people who can take them under their wing, help lift them to the next level. It's all good--the basic concept, the resulting exhibition, the feedback, the career springboards, and the desirable, documenting catalog raisonne.

Since the program is ultimately about critical method, the exercise of responding to art with reaction--including not just admiration and regurgitation but also analysis, interpretation, and distentience--let's focus on the creative labors of the two young writers.

Each took up an interesting theme to initiate and frame a viewpoint, defining some common thread in their choice of artists, while sharing a couple of artists in their separate premises. Miner's enjoyable contribution, "What You Don't See Can Hurt You," highlights direct influences of cinematic suspense found in some of the work. To illuminate his concept, he chose Anne Chan's office settings, configured, quite amazingly, from a quotidian, if manipulated, secretarial item, little rows of staples; and Sophia Silva's after-hours, wasteland photographs of exurban retail culture. He compares the settings of the two equally provocative oeuvres, both which imply that they were originated purely for human use but are found to be eerily vacant of human presence.

Miner recalls old movies (Cat People, Manhunter, Office Killer) and filmmakers (Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, Cindy Sherman) that exploit the horror vacua, the fear of the void, to establish an abiding sense of unknowable suspense, rather than scaring through factual evidence. His is an inciting idea to consort with, but, besides the obvious literal relationship of their cameras and stage-set formats, it's unclear why he only engaged the show's two photographers to demonstrate it. This meant that Miner wrote less directed and principally descriptive, curatorial essays on the remaining artists, who don't resonate with the revelation he has about Chan and Silva.

Why not stretch his assertion to incorporate Maria Karametou's strange weavings and leavings of hair, empty abandoned beauty, empty shamanistic bowls, and bare feet that have been evacuated? After all, what we don't see in Karametou's art may also hurt us. Or drop Benjamin Piwowar's enthralling and visceral dreamscapes down onto the alien sci-fi proscenium of cinematic suspense. It's not that Miner doesn't nestle the art he addresses in the fold of wonderful, copulatory descriptions. But again with the whys: Is it more or less of a writer's exercise to include Maren Hassinger's work in Miner's essay when Ding Ren has made a conceptually tight place for her in her thesis?

Ding Ren's hiply titled thesis, "Repetition Is Not a Sign of Stupidity," methodically and brightly considers process and effect. The artists she selects to prove her more inclusive point make art through repeated gesture, as though it is their holy mantra. Maren Hassinger twists, and twists, a thousand-plus pages from The New York Times into snaking, umbilical, dreadlock ropes, while Breon Gilleran embroiders countless slender threads into the shadow renderings of her stalwart, if seemingly precarious, soft steel sculpture. Ren also includes Maria Karametou in her premise, observing the ritualistic tedium of Karametou's relentless patterned layering of hair strands and bobby pins to allude to ornamental weaving traditions and beauty, and Mary Walker's repeated patterned stamping to inculcate the hoary, filigreed surfaces of her paintings. Ren, too, writes separately on Gilleran and Walker, as well as Chan, and also Alzaruba, whose unconventional, performative sculptures did not find a spot in either critic's exercise in thematic discourse. Still, nowhere does Ren posit any challenging concerns or push the work far beyond the bounds set up by the artist statements.

What is particularly fun about this dueling critics arrangement is to encounter the contrasts of two different themes being argued while using the same artists. It realizes the possibility that many truths coincide in any given expression of art.

Critical writing is discourse--in Old French, the prefix means apart or asunder. Critiquing is not the same as a curatorial essay where the purest intention is to explain the artist to his or her audience. If you compare critical writing to art making, the literary style of purely describing a work of art is like a beaux arts student fastidiously re-creating a painting in a museum. For critical writing to live up effectively to its name, the eccentricity of the writer's viewpoint should interfere with the art--judge it, aggravate it, intensify it, even sometimes frustrate it. The gamble of being "wrong" can in fact be more electrifying and clarifying than being "right," as long as some sincere rationalization accompanies it.

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper