Best Baltimore Visual Art Exhibitions of 2017

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A Year in Baltimore Art Exhibitions by Cara Ober

This year wasn’t all bad. Art and artists, I’m looking at you! You made backwards political thinking, hate, garbage tweeting, and the erosion of democracy almost bearable. Sometimes you challenged the status quo directly with brilliant political statements and other times you presented us with beauty so searing it woke us up and reminded us who we are. To all those who bring their ideas to life – through object-, people-, and community-making, I thank you for your labor in 2017. Whether you are mentioned on this year’s list or not, know that your contributions are appreciated, valuable, and necessary as we move into 2018.

Looking back at the past year, there are so many strong exhibits and projects to recall and we do our best to experience and share them all. However, we chose fifteen “Best Exhibits” that stood out for a number of different reasons in 2017.

1. About Face featuring Amy Sherald, Rozeal, Ebony G. Patterson, and Tim Okamura at The Creative Alliance

It’s shocking to realize how few depictions of black figures appear in major museums, and essential for contemporary figurative artists to substantially fill this void. Baltimore’s Amy Sherald, the first woman to win the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Competition, creates portraits of black figures with exaggerated, gray-toned skin in order to expand and challenge the art historical cannon.

In About Face, an exhibition in the Creative Alliance’s main gallery, Sherald and contemporaries Rozeal, Ebony G. Patterson, and Tim Okamura presented a delightful mishmash of styles acknowledging a diverse range of contemporary figurative depiction specifically for and about black subjects. Despite the narrow genre of portraiture, the show was ambitious and varied enough to suggest a radically expanded future for an art historical cannon where black faces and figures are the rule, rather than an exception. -CO

Read the whole review here by Cara Ober.

2. Wickerham & Lomax’s DUOX4Odell’s, a Light City Neighborhoods Project

Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax, also known collaboratively as DUOX, have been making theatrical, multi-media installations that use digital collage, animation, interactive video, and web design to posit queer-centered narratives since 2009. For Baltimore’s second iteration of Light City, a citywide art and technology festival, the duo was selected to explore Odell’s, a historic dance club that existed from 1976 to ’92 on North Avenue and served as an exclusive cultural hub for the African American community.

After conducting exhaustive research and interviews, rather than attempting to replicate the dance hall as it was, Wickerham & Lomax envisioned the collective memory as it currently exists: a mythic, disco-laden haven. The result was an ambitious digital playground with dangling disco balls, larger-than-life cut out screens depicting 1970s style silhouettes, music, and documentary-style video interviews. A radical departure from linear or historical storytelling, You’ll Know If You Belong captured the essence of a legendary place and time in Baltimore’s history through shocks of color and maximal design inspired by fashion. -CO

Read our coverage here by Aden Weisel, with photos by Joseph Hyde.

3. Malcolm Peacock’s The Museum of Trayvon Martin at Terrault

Malcolm Peacock’s three-part installation at Terrault Contemporary and a separate location on Calvert Street provided a critical and moving analysis of Trayvon Martin’s life, not just a recant of his murder at the hands of George Zimmerman.

The great success of Peacock’s “museum” is its determined and persistent visualization of Trayvon not as a victim, but as a teenager. His life, his joys with family and hobbies, are highlighted and remembered. Peacock’s exhibition stressed the importance of not just looking, but seeing Trayvon, and acknowledging that his life is reflected in all of our lives. Peacock considered him a brother, because he could have been his brother, and is in many ways a little brother, nephew, or cousin to us all. -AC

Read the whole review here by Angela N. Carroll.

4. The Contemporary’s The Ground by Michael Jones McKean

In 1888, the Huztler Brothers Palace opened on Baltimore’s Howard Street as a “museum of merchandise.” In 2017, the building serves as host to a vast internet server farm, but its museum status found renewed life as the location of The Contemporary’s site-specific installation: The Ground by New York- and Richmond-based artist Michael Jones McKean, where whiteness, bright lights, theatricality, and obfuscation read more like a New York gallery than a contemporary Baltimore installation.

The Contemporary acknowledges that McKean is interested in the building’s service as a kind of funnel, where the physical and digital were/are dispersed for mass consumption. As a department store, Hutzler’s was a collecting and viewing point for consumer products and now, computers process and store a trove of digital information at the site. The artist has taken an alien view of this process, as if he came across this place at a later time and unearthed it, studying it as today’s archeologists look at past cultures and civilizations.

At its core, The Ground is about place and who or what belongs there, creating the future of a museum as he sees it—nature made sterile by the progress of technology; modern society unearthed, distorted and understood through a lens of time and space. – AW

Read the whole review here by Aden Weisel.

5. Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Counterparts at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, confirmed as a MacArthur genius in 2017, offers the laser-sharp observation of a Vermeer through similarly quiet interior paintings but smartly updated with contemporary materials and message. Her solo exhibition in the BMA’s Front Room Gallery, Counterparts, features six large site-specific mixed media paintings on paper and is a testament to her skills as a conjurer of visual intimacy, a strategic thinker, designer, and accomplished student of art history.

As with Vermeer and other masterful painters of interior spaces featuring humans like Bonnard, Matisse, Ingres, and even Diebenkorn, Akunyili Crosby is able to create a palpable sense of intimacy and make it immediately available to anyone gazing into her dreamy vignettes. It’s not so much the artist’s technical skill, which is considerable given four years of classical training at the Pennsylvania Academy, sandwiched between undergraduate study at Swarthmore and graduate study at Yale, but her ability to distill elusive memory, the feeling of sitting within ones own swirling narratives, into an accessible visual composition that makes her work special.

Akunyili Crosby not only creates believable and appealing spaces that dazzle your eyes, but she invites you to join her—to enter into that space–with generous surface detail, harmonious color, an array of pattern, and charming arrangements of personal effects. -CO

6. LabBodies’ Freedom Free-Done Performance Series at SpaceCamp

The beauty of LabBodies Performance Art Review is that you never know what to expect until you are sharing observant, participatory space with the artists as they perform. Each action is a disruptive and engaging encounter that problematizes, critiques, and demands attention while the installation work enhances and expounds on the ideas performed.

In the face of an overwhelming persistence of local, national, and international disparities, corruptions and assaults on basic civil liberties, it is telling and timely that Dr. H Corona and Dr. A. Pinkston chose freedom as an explorative prompt for participants in LabBodies‘ annual Performance Art Review at SpaceCamp, where a collection of immersive installations and live performances have transformed the gallery into a site for critical discourse on freedom. Freedom Free-Done offered reflective affirmations visualizing freedom’s potential, and how collective and individual imaginings about freedom can dismantle the decrepit and exclusive systems that threaten to destroy the world. – AC

Read the entire review here by Angela N. Carroll.

7. Retreat: Lu Zhang and William Lamson at Area 405

Area 405 is a unique space that insists on its own personality – grayish green paint, wood floors, textured walls – into every exhibition. An artist can fight against this, but any attempt to transform this gallery into any semblance of white cube neutrality is a losing battle. The most successful shows at 405 access the power and aesthetics of the space and roll with it, maximizing its potential for drama and experimentation.

In a dual exhibition, Baltimore-based artist Lu Zhang and New York-based William Lamson both asked the same question: What is site-specificity and how does this impact the production of artistic works? Their simultaneous but diverging answers are on display through January 13. Zhang presents an ever-evolving studio installation ‘Headspace,’ an extension of her actual studio located upstairs in the building, where cut paper and sculptural objects are displayed, moved, and interact with one another. It’s so subtle that you can miss much of it in such a busy space, but the search brings the visitor into a playful relationship with the work. In contrast, Lamson transforms the back gallery into a dark, cinematic playground in the video installation ‘Untitled (Infinity Camera),’ where a giant screen projects the vision of a floating camera strapped with mirrors and depicts NY waterways as unfamiliar and also comforting. A smaller video of a crumpled piece of paper is projected onto what appears to be a floating piece of paper. In both Lamson works, the attention lavished upon the mode of projection makes the mundane subjects of each video magical.

Both Zhang and Lamson’s projects are adept at exploiting the old factory’s range of disparate and arcane aesthetics, presenting visions that contrast mightily but yield new revelations in the site that inspired them. -CO

8. Phaan Howng: The Succession of Nature at the Baltimore Museum of Art

It’s a pleasure to stand in this space, watching visitors poke their heads in warily and then light up with a goofy smile as they enter the room. In this collaboration in the ‘learning commons’ area of the museum, Phaan Howng worked with Blue Water Baltimore, a local environmental organization, to create an immersive world that functions simultaneously as toxic and charming. Howng’s acidic hand-drawn loops fill the entire space, including the floors and furniture, and allow visitors to interact with seemingly natural and manmade objects that fit seamlessly into the dystopian nightmare. A small boombox drones on in a corner and black lights further distort the experience, which is nothing short of enchanting.

Whether you find a future where plants become inhospitable to humans to defend themselves an inspiring vision, as Howng does, or scary, you’ll come away feeling moved by the intensity of the experience. A smartly designed takeaway periodical functions as an educational manual for local environmental protective action, a map of Baltimore’s parks, and a piece of Howng’s artwork. -CO

9. Birdland and the Anthropocene at the Peale Museum

A ghost haunts the attic of 225 North Holiday Street in downtown Baltimore. A few, actually. If you climb all the stairs inside the Peale Museum, reach the fourth-floor perch of hardwood that faces three doors and look right, you’ll spy the spectral presence of Benjamin Andrew’s “Menagerie” (2017), a hologram of a series of birds that appear to wander into the empty space of the attic, look around, make eye contact with you, and then continue on their way.

Like all ghosts, at first you’re not entirely sure what they want, or even if they see you. But after travelling through all four floors of Birdland and the Anthropocene, a group exhibit curated by local artist Lynne Parks, you have a pretty good idea what may have led to their demise: us.

The 28 artists and artist teams included in Birdland deliver a history and mediation on human-bird interaction, coexistence, and the ways in which our lives have so affected birds’ natural habitats over the centuries that many of them are dying off.

Like Abigail DeVille’s Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars commission with the Contemporary, Parks’ activation of the Peale threads together the building’s original impetus to be a museum for both art and natural history. How the human pursuit of the scientific and creative expressions entangles one another winds through the brain as you take in Birdland‘s smorgasbord of ideas. -BM

Read the whole review here by Bret McCabe.

10. Painting Not Painting at |’sindikit|

Most artists spend decades even settling on what their practice will be, and are themselves beholden to its shifts and evolutions, with twists and turns both planned and unexpected, a balance of intuition and interrogation. The group exhibition Painting Not Painting had a tall order, in reiterating the driving force behind |‘sindikit|’s larger goals: to challenge painters’ practices. The eight artists and a collaborative partnership took the gallery’s prompt seriously, eliminating and diverging from the boundaries of their own practices in relation to painting, with some pushing into 3D or towards digital, or falling back into the comfort zone of painting to reach the core sensibility of their work.

Whether a new material, new situation, new context, this bet on artists’ ingenuity crafts not only a framework of risk for the curators, but for the audience as well. At |’sindikit|, there is a shattering of expectations for the artists you may be familiar with, and for those less familiar, an introduction that may not open the door you thought it would. -TH

Read the entire review here by Terence Hannum.

11. Ferocious Beauty: Wrathful Deities from Tibet and Nepal at The Walters

These religious figures from Himalayan art have much to teach the mortals of today’s world. Not only are these deities dynamic and powerful, the quality of their rendering and detail manages to transform violent and gruesome acts into images of aching beauty.

According to curator Katherine Kasdorf, “The artworks in Ferocious Beauty depict wrathful Buddhist deities, who destroy harmful, negative forces. Some wrathful deities protect followers of the Buddhist teachings from physical harm, but most of those included in the exhibition conquer psychological obstacles that must be overcome in order to realize enlightenment—obstacles like hatred, ignorance, and greed. They appear so frightening because they must be even more terrifying than the harmful forces that they destroy. So, their sharp weapons, their crowns of skulls and garlands of severed heads, their fangs, their fiery hair, and all their other frightening qualities are used to intimidate and subdue the same things that we want to subdue.”

These wrathful dieties are exactly what we need to inspire us right now, in a time of fake news, #metoo, and the loss of democratic values. Is is possible that this ability to be ruthlessly destructive can actually lead to exponential growth in the future? Not only does this exquisitely curated exhibit of work challenge the boundaries of traditional ideas about beauty and power, it inspires us to be more purposeful with the radical creative and destructive powers we possess. – CO

12. James Bouché’s The Holy Ghost Goes to Bed at Midnight at School 33

In the case of James Bouché’s elegant solo exhibition, The Holy Ghost Goes to Bed at Midnight at School 33 Art Center, there is much the artist could tell us. The show mines his memories of growing up gay in the Mormon church, and could have been self-righteous, didactic, and stilted, focusing on the trauma and guilt suffered because of his secret within a repressive, cult-like environment. This show could easily have functioned as therapy for the artist, like Auguston Burrows in 3D, but does not.

Thankfully, Bouché is more interested in crafting the objects of the present rather than literally mining his past. As such, he is able to successfully translate his personal narrative into a compelling and mysterious installation that relies on his own vivid memories as a springboard, but without letting nostalgia overwhelm his aesthetics.

Bouché presents his memories intimately, but makes them immersive and universal. If you were trapped in a childhood that felt wrong to you, and secretly longed for a forbidden adult life, one with razor sharp aesthetics and a touch of S&M, how would you imagine your future? Bouché’s answer is a dark and magical show that evokes the sense of being alone in church late at night, as though you’re trespassing in a ghostlike and forbidden zone. -CO

Read the review here by Cara Ober.

13. Artists for Truth at SpaceCamp

Lillian Hoover: Shortly after the election, when so many of us were feeling frightened and apprehensive about what was coming, this quote from Toni Morrison came across our feeds. It was a good reminder that we could either live in panic or do something useful. As individuals, we recognized that our monetary donations will only go so far, but we could leverage our skills to make a greater contribution.

And so we formed Artists for Truth. We believe that the ability to discover, share, and weigh facts is a right and a responsibility for everyone within our democracy. In a political and media climate that disregards reality, we fight to enable citizens with the skills and tools to effectively develop a civil society based on truth.

Melisa Webb: A group of artists, curators, gallerists, teachers, community organizers, and information professionals came together through conversation via social media and word of mouth just after the election of Donald Trump. The initial catalyst was a post by Lillian Hoover asking people if they wanted to mount a fundraising exhibition to help organizations that were already out there doing important work.

I think that those who responded were all feeling a great deal of shock, and wanted to do something real- we didn’t want to just rant on FB and worry about what was about to happen. Lillian’s post tapped into something we wanted and needed- a way to gather and talk about what we were feeling at the time, but also to act- to use what each of us personally had to offer to create a community around the change we wanted to see.

Read the whole interview with the AFT team here by Cara Ober.

14. Mickalene Thomas: Muse and tête-à-tête at MICA

Mickalene Thomas’ portraits are living muses: installations, large high-gloss photographs, pocket Polaroids, and collages inspired by women from her community of family members, lovers, friends, and artistic contemporaries. The works selected for the Muse and tete-a-tete exhibition at the MICA Meyerhoff Gallery enunciate an intersectional black femininity; binary modes of identification like ratchet-or-regal, sensual-or-saintly, expand to encompass the meta-identities Thomas presents. Each glamorous image invokes a celebratory aesthetic that embraces black bodies as beautiful.

During an interview with ARTnet, Thomas shared that her intent is not specifically oriented around beautifying black women. “I think my work deals with a lot of ugliness,” she said. “When I think of beauty and how I present it, it’s not because I think life is, Oh, you’re beautiful or seductive. Beauty and its aspects of how young girls see themselves… Those are uncanny moments.” -AC

Read the review here by Angela N. Carroll.

15. Abdi Farah: America’s Team at Platform Gallery

“How do you make figurative work that is not about identity? Does that work edify or dehumanize? I’m interested in the ways it may dehumanize,” said Farah in an exhibition statement. The show, which displays deconstructed team banners and portraits of black athletes, seeks to explore the way sports unites Americans as a country, but also the way sports related pathologies influence the perception of our nation, community, and individual identity.

Farah believes that “so much of what we do in recreation, like football, is a kind of simulated warfare.” In America’s Team, the artist interrogates the violent history of the Confederacy by appropriating paraphernalia from Mississippi and Louisiana sports teams.

The artist’s commentary speaks directly to the rhetoric of the “America First,” our current administration’s (and followers’) desperate attachment to the notion of winning and putting America first. This is particularly ironic and personal because Farah achieved national fame in 2010 as the first season’s winner for the Bravo reality television show Work of Art.  Farah’s intimate understanding of the difference between the perception of winning and the actuality of it seems to parallel America’s insistence on “winning” and of being perceived as a “winner.” Winning as a fraught concept forms the primary framework for the collection. -AC

Read the review here by Angela N. Carroll.

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