Block Stitch at School 33 presents a Multicultural and Multifaceted View of Baltimore Living by Cara Ober
“What neighborhood do you live in?” This is always the first question asked of any Baltimorean, after being introduced to someone who also lives here. Whether our disparate pockets of unique city culture were originally designed to include or divide is a whole other story; the reality of Baltimore today is a patchwork of small hamlets where people choose to live, work, and play for specific purposes.
Based on your answer to the question, the asker may assume too much about you. Neighborhood stereotypes exist for a reason – Hampden handlebar mustachioed home brewer, Charles Village patchouli-wearing solstice worshipper, or Canton beer drinking kickballer, anyone? However, a familiarity with Baltimore’s neighborhoods often means you can engage in a lively conversation with a complete strange about personal experiences, merits and landmarks of any local neighborhood. Although these stereotypes are most often lovingly applied, it’s a relief to engage with Baltimore’s neighborhoods in a more objective and nuanced way. Block Stitch, an exhibit at School 33 curated by Ashley Molese, examines Baltimore’s neighborhoods from a number of unique photographic perspectives presenting a loose, “vernacular fabric” of what living in Baltimore can mean.
In School 33’s large main gallery, six photographers present multi-faceted projects based on six different neighborhoods in Baltimore, emphasizing the ways Baltimoreans tend to identify themselves. With a keen focus on gender, race, sexual identities, and a range of human subjects, Block Stitch presents images, which challenge, document, and beautify, that mostly avoid stereotypes.
Tiffany Jones’s project explores the Lexington Market area and presents a number of striking, powerful images of “hair pride” among women of color. From images in wig shops and hair salons, to more formal, fashion-inspired urban portraits, the women in Jones’s series are smart, serious, and beautiful, with many looking straight back at the viewer through the lens. Arranged simply in a cascading grid with tiny magnets, the images function individually and come together through intense color harmonies as a group.
Another project that benefits from the influence of fashion photography is Olivia Obineme’s Mt. Vernon series. Ostensibly an extension of Obineme’s Strangers with Style Blog, each subject is photographed casually, on the streets of Mt. Vernon, and each subject is rendered from head to toe, with their clothing functioning as self expression. It’s worth noting that most of Obineme’s subjects appear to be in their mid-20’s, and include men and women in a balanced array of multi-cultural backgrounds.
Extending the fashion motif, Obineme exhibits her prints as an installation in front of a black background on a clothing rack. Each photo is clipped gently with a wooden hanger and the viewer is encouraged to browse through the images, the same way you would scan items of clothing in a store. Although heavy handed, this playful approach adds an interactive element to the work and makes each portrait an intimate encounter.
A time mapping series by Neil C. Jones, projected movie size in the back gallery in a Ken Burns-ian slide show style, explores the Mt. Washington neighborhood. Jones’s black and white photos were all shot from his own front yard over a 24-hour period on a Saturday (also known as Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath), and explores a surprising range of people who cross his path, from Jewish neighbors dressed up and walking around to young children of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. The grittiness of Jones’s media adds a documentarian, timeless quality to his images, and makes you consider how much has changed or remained the same in Mt. Washington in the past fifty years. Either way, the appreciation the artist holds for his neighbors is palpable and my view of Mt. Washington is enriched.
The wild card in this show is a video by French artist Frederic Nauczyciel, which explores the transformation of a Park Heights resident from male to female. In the video, Gabriel slowly applies makeup and costume, and eventually becomes LoBell. Although it is a beautifully shot video and an intimate portrait of an individual, I don’t learn anything new about Park Heights except that a good-looking transsexual lives there. Although I am glad that Gabriel and LoBell both exist, and his transformation is intriguing, the inclusion of this piece feels more like a personal vignette than an exploration of a Baltimore neighborhood.
A counterpoint to Nauczycial’s video, Crystal Star Whitman’s “Rough Trade” series features portraits of Baltimore drag queens at a queer dance party at the Sidebar, a tiny downtown punk bar that sits behind City Hall. These photos feature luscious, oversaturated color and highly textured backdrops in a precise, clean style. Whitman also employs a fashion aesthetic, where gorgeous humans in elaborate garb are celebrated, revealing a dramatic subculture with lots of attitude, but without any Nan Goldin tragic effects.
I had a hard time with Zhenia Baluwka’s Patterson Park-based “Fail” series, not because these aren’t good photos, but because the project was more contrived than the other series in this show. In “Fail,” Baluwka satirizes fashion photography by inventing a stylish female character and placing her in unfortunate situations. In one image, she grimaces after spilling a glass of red wine on her blouse and in another, she has just stepped in dog poo in high heels. In all the shots, there are telltale background details of Patterson Park kitsch and texture, but I am tired of thinking of this neighborhood, and Baltimore in general, from a John Waters’s ‘loveable fail’ perspective. I think these photos would function as a breath of fresh air in a fashion magazine context, and I would love them there, but they come off as cute when placed next to the other series in this show.
With the exception of Jones’s dramatic slideshow installation, all of the photos from this exhibit could have benefitted from an infusion of cash: had they been printed larger and framed, with fewer prints on the wall, this exhibit would have packed more of a punch. However, I can’t fault an artist for spending responsibly within their means. Along these lines, it seems that this particular media, subject, and style demands an even more powerful format: a printed book.
The prolific nature of each series, their consistent small size, and the way each borrows richly from fashion presents an interesting challenge: as much as I love these prints in the gallery, it would be amazing to experience all this work bound together as a periodical. Block Stitch is a worthwhile and unique opportunity to enrich one’s understanding of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the individuals who live there, but to view each body of work intimately and beautifully printed on a page, collectively, would be sublime.
Block Stitch will be on exhibit at School 33 Art Center through January 3, 2015.
Author Cara Ober is founding editor at BmoreArt.
More photos from Block Stitch at School 33 Art Center: