A Gentle Excavation explores Baltimore’s history on a personal scale
In this cultural moment overrun with Marie Kondo and the Property Brothers, there seems to be an assessment of artifacts and what to do with them, summoning questions about what constitutes memorabilia and nostalgia, what constitutes utility, and what deserves preservation. Recent devastating fires at Notre Dame, Al-Aqsa, the Highlander Center, and Brazil’s National Museum highlight the international importance of the preservation, cataloging, and orderliness of venerated artifacts and edifices. Such protective yearnings are amplified amid such spectacular disasters, but how does that same feeling of urgency translate on a more localized scale?
In assembling A Gentle Excavation, running through May 4 at Resort in downtown Baltimore, curator Allie Linn opens this question, combining work rooted deep in the city’s industrial past with imagined futures. The result is a stimulating show that unearths the previous lives of the building that houses the exhibition, its immediate environs, and Baltimore as a whole.
A Gentle Excavation at Resort
Resort is nestled in an unassuming storefront at the corner of Park and Saratoga in downtown Baltimore. An awning for Sharp Dressed Man, a prior building tenant, still crowns the entranceway, providing a clever disguise for the gallery and serving as a readymade addition to Linn’s curatorial vision for the show. The artists contributing to A Gentle Excavation—Keenon Brice, A.K. Burns, Kelly X, Nicole Ringel, Wickerham & Lomax, agustine zegers, and Lu Zhang—each provide work that speaks to some aspect of this building’s history, which had previously served in varying order as a florist, a printing press, a residence, a tailor, a taxidermist, and a uniform company.
Renovated by gallerists Alex Ebstein and Seth Adelsberger in 2017, the building which now houses Resort offered many remnants of its former lives to the artists in A Gentle Excavation, many of whom have imbricated artifacts discovered in rafters and walls throughout the exhibition.
Kelly X’s poem “Middlebury,” laser-engraved on acrylic panels, drew me in immediately with a story that spans the US while remaining firmly rooted in Baltimore:
Dread leaving Baltimore because
I’m only beautiful in Baltimore because
It’s where my ovary died because
I have no money
in case of emergency like
the city is never okay like
how did anyone ever die during a rough ride like
how are there so many empty houses like
like how I stood in line
trying to get help on Charles St and a woman said
“you don’t know how to fill out a form
but you probably went to college”
Dodging my own reflection in these black mirrors in order to read the entire text turned the piece into a sort of interactive game, repeated in two other panels deeper in the gallery, “Waterfront” and “I, I AM THE CARTOGRAPHER I AM THE UNCHARTED LAND I WILL MAKE YOU A MAP AND YOU WILL COME TO ME.” Together, Kelly’s pieces connect modern Baltimore pop culture memoir with the city’s history of civil rights struggle, modern environmental devastation with mythology, delivering a sense of urgency and despair while I rocked back and forth, reading.
An audio recording of Kelly reading “Middlebury,” cleverly presented in a loop in the gallery restroom, serves as a sort of easter egg for those hunting for it, or for those who need a moment of solitude. Under the sound of the bathroom fan, Kelly’s voice is barely audible, and the temptation to sit in that restroom in the dark for the full eighteen minutes was strong.
Lu Zhang, “TEOTWAWKI” (detail), 1-gallon mylar bags, black rice, bright candles, candles, chocolate coins, dried aniseed, dried chili peppers, dried cinnamon sticks, dried honeysuckle, dried lavender, dried noodle, dried red beans, dried rose, dried seaweed, dried shitake mushrooms, dried Sichuan peppercorns, honey straws, incense, instant coffee, matches, oxygen absorbers, paper, plaster, plastic, ramen noodles and seasoning packet, sugarcubes.
Lu Zhang’s “TEOTWAWKI,” draped in the gallery’s front window and continuing in an inside column, comprises dozens of mylar bags vacuum-sealed to preserve miscellaneous foods and supplies, including coffee, spices, ramen noodles, sugar, oxygen absorbers, honey straws, and more. The contents of some packages seem obvious: this one is probably rice, that one seems to be some sort of bean. The majority of contents, however, remain inscrutable and left to the imagination, and the sheer volume of these shining, unlabeled bags comes off as simultaneously desperate and comical. The sum total prods questions of the hows and whys of preservation and preparation for an uncertain future. How long will this method of preservation last? When the time comes, will there be water to make these dried goods consumable, or even palatable? Will there be any value in these chocolate coins and bright candles when the time comes to tear open the packaging?
Throughout the exhibition, agustine zeger’s “Promised body,” comprised of statice and liatris in blues and purples, sprouts from walls, vividly suggesting the ways nature quickly overtakes many abandoned Baltimore buildings. Zeger’s “Basement Accord” adds a unique olfactory dimension to the space, with text tucked onto aluminum plaques interspersed throughout the show, leading to a lavender-and-earth mist-maker in a far corner of the gallery.
Three aluminum-cast shirts by A.K. Burns adorn the exhibition. Modeled on two discarded T-shirts and a work shirt, these pieces are a direct call to the labor history of the building, particularly in its many incarnations devoted to clothing. To the average excavator, the angular shapes of these shirts are recognizable as rigid and useless as originally intended, summoning a rupture in the space between the manual labor in which such garments would be put to work and the domestic labor which would restore their utility.
Collage and installation comprise the remainder of the exhibit: Wickerham & Lomax, the team who until earlier this year operated Diskobar as an artist-run club in Mount Vernon, present several elaborate assemblages entitled “Frankenstein Draft: Showrunner_Wickerham” mounted on custom dry-erase boards, as well as a vast digital vinyl print celebrating the recently shuttered space, calling attention to the impermanence of existing spaces, particularly those serving marginalized populations. Keenon Brice’s “September Collage,” a collection of found images imposing birds of prey and “environmentally-friendly” images of trees printed on brown paper bags against a disassembled Bride of Frankenstein, suggests a natural world ready to destroy the human drive to replicate and preserve itself.
Nicole Ringel, “Palimpsest Cartography” (detail), inkjet print on drawing paper, pencil on mylar
Nicole Ringel’s “Palimpsest Cartography,” an installation which is very much in dialogue with her concurrent MFA thesis exhibition on display at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, presents an inkjet-printed insurance map of the neighborhood surrounding Resort, topped with a transparent layer with updates to reflect more recent alterations to the neighborhood landscape. These maps, layered on a stacked-brick foundation and including site-specific ephemera—leaves, stone fragments, industrial staples, bottlecaps—reveal how much has changed in the neighborhoods surrounding Resort, from the structures removed to make way for the Jones Falls Expressway to those cleared for many of Baltimore’s seemingly timeless arts and cultural establishments: the Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Ringel’s installation serves as an altar to all of the buried and decomposing stories in and around Resort. Walking out of the gallery into the spring sun, I left with an animated awareness of the many lives and hidden histories of every building and piece of detritus for blocks around, not just the few fortunate to be salvaged and celebrated by artists, archivists, and their adherents.
A Gentle Excavation is on view at Resort through May 4. For more information, visit resortbaltimore.com.
Images courtesy Resort.
Rahne Alexander is an interdisciplinary artist and writer from Baltimore, working in video, music, and performance. She is the frontwoman of the rock band Santa Librada, and an MFA student in the Intermedia+Digital Art program at UMBC. More of her work is available at her website: rahne.com.