The C. Grimaldis Gallery Opens Its Doors to Socially Conscious Voices

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Painting Not Painting

Thoughts on the C. Grimaldis Gallery’s Annual Summer Exhibition by Andy Clark

Whether visiting impeccably crafted survey exhibitions at the BMA, brushing shoulders with up-and-coming artists at an opening reception at Terrault Contemporary, or listening to live music at Artscape, summertime in Baltimore provides no shortage of art and culture to enjoy.

Besides experiencing the creative spectacle that is Artscape, I always look forward to checking out the annual summer survey exhibition at the C. Grimaldis Gallery. Founded in 1977, the C. Grimaldis Gallery is the oldest contemporary art gallery in Baltimore and has undoubtedly earned its reputation as an influential venue within the city. The gallery is celebrating its 40th anniversary, making its current exhibition, Summer 17, particularly significant.

With the arrival of two new curators, Elspeth Walker and Peggy Chiang, and the addition of a project space downstairs (appropriately named C. Grimaldis Projects), the gallery has been mounting particularly thoughtful exhibitions in recent months.

This year’s summer survey show is filled with well-made and thought provoking artwork, consisting of works which “challenge and provoke cultural scripts, often presenting intimate experiences of broad sociopolitical realities.”

The exhibition is physically and thematically divided into two parts. The main floor features a diverse selection of mostly two dimensional works that address social and political themes embedded in personal narratives, while the project space showcases largely three dimensional works which embrace the abstract while highlighting the manipulation of materials and processes. Both exhibits are designed to introduce new artists to the gallery’s roster and to present them alongside more established gallery relationships.

The Main Floor

Wesley Clark “My Big Black America”

Upon entering the main gallery, Wesley Clark’s “My Big Black America” provides a direct opportunity to grapple with America’s complicated racial history while contemplating the artist’s personal relationship to it. The towering sculpture resides on the wall in the shape of a blackened United States. Salvaged pieces of wood are given new life and assembled to create the structural form of the piece, where Clark’s autobiography is merged with the political.

Aesthetically, the piece pays homage to the monochrome sculptures of Louise Nevelson. The now-deceased artist is one of the most influential sculptors of the twentieth century for her innovative assemblages which were painted entirely gold, white, or, most notably, black. Despite the visual similarities to Nevelson, Clark’s work is more aligned with contemporary artists Rashid Johnson and Theaster Gates, who integrate bold ideas eloquently with symbolic materials. Although Clark’s sculpture captivates viewers due to its scale and content, there’s plenty of other work in the show that deserves ample attention.

Beverly McIver “Grace’s White Friends”

“Grace’s White Friends” and “Telling Secret”s rely on Beverly McIver’s loose handling of oil paint to depict personal circumstances pertaining to race and gender. Although the paintings’ layered surface pentimenti draws viewers in, its content is really what matters here.

Both paintings utilize depictions of children’s dolls as allegorical motifs for race relations. “Grace’s White Friends” illustrates a situation in which Grace, a black doll and the painting’s subject, is surrounded by three nondescript white dolls, all of whom reside on a brushy surface of pale yellow and mint green. The white dolls lie facedown, showing their irreverence for Grace and viewer alike. Like other good paintings, this one prompts the viewer to ask questions. Is the protagonist choosing to associate with these white characters? Or, although smiling, is she obligated to do so?

The show doesn’t just feature traditional media like painting and sculpture, with more contemporary practices present. Photography by Christos Palios, Ben Marcin, and Rania Matar is generously sprinkled throughout the gallery.

Rania Matar, “Samira 15, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut Lebanon”, 2011, archival pigment print on Baryta paper, 28.8 x 36 inches

The documentarian photographs of Rania Matar, on display towards the back of the main floor, humanize the Syrian and Palestinian refugee crises. By documenting children refugees in the city of Beirut, Matar’s candid portraits give voice to the most vulnerable of those affected by the migration crises. Samira 15, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut is a portrait of Samira, a 15 year old girl and refugee. Calmly collected wearing her scarlet hijab against a crumbling graffitied wall, her confident gaze arrests the viewer, imploring us to pause and consider her story.

The Project Space

The works on display in the project space are non-objective, exploring form, craft, and the manipulation of materials by way of the artist’s hand.

New paintings by Graham Collins consist of reconstituted pieces of canvas seamed together to form energetic compositions. “Unmeltable Antebellum” merges fragments of canvas to form a compact composition in which a kaleidoscope of saturated colors greet the viewer from across the room.

Similarly, the untitled works of Annette Sauermann reveal the artist’s deliberate engagement with materials. Sauermann, a native of Germany, uses sandpaper, cement, and light filters (similar to mylar in appearance) to create austere two-dimensional worlds of stacked surfaces and linear forms that allude to architectural structures. All the works in the project space are process-oriented, where meaning and message are found through the act of making.

Graham Collins “On The Reasons For Becoming A Horse”, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 80 × 54 inches

After walking through both floors of the gallery, it’s important to note, as the press release does, that Summer 17 presents “a robust selection of current work.” Despite the apt description, however, the show is overhung in the back of the main floor, making this area feel congested.

works by John Ruppert and Madeleine Deitz

Compared to the gallery’s summer survey exhibitions of previous years, Summer 17 is by far the most socially and politically conscious. In the past, the gallery has prioritized abstract sculpture, while continually showing their stable of apolitical artists (all deceased) like Eugene Leake, Anthony Caro, and Grace Hartigan. These three artists undoubtedly made great work, but it’s refreshing to encounter the voices of emerging artists whose work challenges issues of the day. In Baltimore, venues like Galerie Myrtis and The Contemporary are better known for promoting these voices and ideas.

Just for context, Galerie Myrtis relocated from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore in 2006 and has continually championed the work of black artists through exhibitions like Stars and Stripes: Pride or Despair (2008), and To Be Black in White America (2016). The Contemporary was founded in Baltimore by George Ciscle in 1989 and in 1993, mounted the groundbreaking exhibition Mining the Museum, a project by Fred Wilson that pointedly challenged issues of equity and inclusion within museums. Their recent series of site-specific exhibitions featuring Abigail DeVille and Michael Jones McKean have continued the tradition, exhibiting socially and politically engaged work as a meaningful opportunity to become more relevant to the community. It seems that the C. Grimaldis Gallery has realized this and has subsequently mounted an unexpected show with a new perspective in mind.

I’m not suggesting that the C. Grimaldis Gallery is attempting to emulate The Contemporary or other gallery models, just that the gallery’s shift towards showing socially and politically engaged work, created by artists of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, is a good thing. By representing more artists of color, Baltimore’s galleries and museums become increasingly relevant to the communities in which they are embedded.

As we drift in the wake of the recent Whitney Biennial and its heavy-handed political agenda, it’s the right time for curators and artists to use exhibitions to emphatically address the most pertinent issues facing our country and world. Summer 17 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery appears to be an indicator of change for the gallery, and I’m curious to see if there will be an increase in socially and politically engaged work on display in the coming year.

Author Bio: A native of Maryland, Andy Martinelli Clark is an emerging artist and writer currently pursuing a BFA in Painting at MICA.

Summer ’17 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery is up through August 26, 2017.

Photos courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery.

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