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The 2021 Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists Exhibition

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Hae Won Sohn, 2021 Sondheim Finalist

After way too much digital-only interaction with art (and people) over the past year, the BmoreArt team was excited to see the 2021 Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize Finalists exhibition in person. Like many organizations, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA) had to cancel events last year and tried to keep things alive online instead. We experienced the 2020 Sondheim exhibition virtually—arguably better than nothing, and certainly the wisest choice amid an unrelenting pandemic. But unless art is originally made for the screen, there is no substitute for seeing it in real life. 

It felt both good and weird to view the 16th annual Sondheim Prize Finalists show at the Walters Art Museum—vaxxed, masked—a couple of weeks ago. The Sondheim exhibition is typically part of Artscape, the largest free art festival which also somehow always lands on the hottest weekend of the summer. Citing safety concerns for employees and attendees, BOPA announced in May that Artscape would be canceled for the second year in a row. But the Sondheim show would once again be viewable in person at the (air-conditioned) Walters Art Museum.

 

Hoesy Corona
Hae Won Sohn, Square Dreams, 2020, gypsum cement

This year’s jurors, Naz Cuguoğlu, Michelle Grabner, and Meleko Mokgosi chose five finalists: Hae Won Sohn (Baltimore), Tsedaye Makonnen (Washington, DC), Hoesy Corona (Baltimore), Lavar Munroe (Baltimore), and Jonathan Monaghan (Washington, DC). The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced in a ceremony on July 10, 2021; the remaining finalists will each receive $2,500. The finalist exhibition is on view at the Walters now through July 18, 2021, and BOPA curator Lou Joseph will select works by the semifinalists for a separate exhibition this summer.

With five finalists, this is the smallest Sondheim cohort in years (typically there are six or seven artists/collectives), and as a result each artist gets a little more room to shine than usual in the gallery spaces. The 2021 finalists create artwork in a variety of media and forms—a delight for our screen-weary eyes. 

At the exhibition entrance, there’s Sohn’s formalist and process-oriented plaster sculpture, in which the artist creates a mold, casts a form, breaks the mold and then creates a new mold from the pieces, repeating until the abstract object starts to lose its connection to the original.

Makonnen’s display includes documentation of performance as well as remnant garments; her work combines fiber art, sculpture, and performance to address both the historical and present-day migration of people from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

Corona presents a decade’s worth of work that examines migration, xenophobia, the climate crisis, identity and belonging (and various ways these things all intersect) through video work, performance, costumes and ephemera, sculpted talismans, and more.

Munroe’s space can barely contain his abundant narrative mixed-media paintings, which reference the artist’s memories and experiences to explore Black single fatherhood, gender roles, religion and spirituality, protection and loss.

Closing out the show, Monaghan’s space is the most minimalist with only two works on view, but the central work, an 18-minute animation titled “Den of Wolves,” creates a maximalist, eerie, future-dystopian/hyper-consumerist environment. 

Jonathan Monaghan
“Trained as an art historian, most of my work involves piecing together bits of history in order to give a voice to artists of the past. However, it has been a delight to have the five Sondheim finalists speak for themselves, both through their work in the exhibition and through their individual talks with me."
Dany Chan, Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Walters Art Museum

 

One of the best aspects of the Sondheim competition is that it gives regional artists a rare opportunity to exhibit at one of Baltimore’s two major art museums. At the Walters, which primarily focuses on ancient and historic works of art, this is a treat for the curators, too.

“I jumped at the chance of working with living artists for this exhibition,” says Dany Chan, Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Walters Art Museum. “Trained as an art historian, most of my work involves piecing together bits of history in order to give a voice to artists of the past. However, it has been a delight to have the five Sondheim finalists speak for themselves, both through their work in the exhibition and through their individual talks with me.”

Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander agrees. “The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize exhibition allows us to interact in a different way with our vibrant regional artists and to find intersections between their work and the art in our collection that spans cultures from around the world and across time,” says Marciari-Alexander. “We are always thrilled to work with our incredible local partner, The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, to spotlight our creative community and to emphasize the importance of the arts in our city and in our lives.”

BOPA curator Lou Joseph was glad to work on the Sondheim show in person this year. “It’s obviously been a very tough year, and while I was happy to be able to keep the Sondheim Prize going in 2020, I knew the finalists were really missing a great part of the process, of having a museum exhibition,” Joseph says. “I am really excited to have the show at the Walters in 2021, and appreciate all the finalists’ flexibility and hard work this year, along with all the hard work by my BOPA colleagues and everyone at the Walters.”

Lavar Munroe, Risen, 2021, latex house paint, jewelry, acrylic, rug, dominoes, spray paint, tiles, parachute harness, mousetraps, collage, pearls on canvas, 84 x 108 in.
Tsedaye Makonnen, "Cosmic Soil," 2021, Burlap fabric, wood, mirror acrylic, cotton 92 1⁄2 in. x 186 in. with Framed Images from "Aberash: You Give Light" (performance documentation), 2019

By its nature as a competition where just one finalist receives a $25,000 prize, not every Sondheim finalist exhibition is a cohesive or smooth one, but this year we noticed a poetic flow from artist to artist. As you walk through the gallery, common themes emerge where one artist’s work builds off its predecessor’s, or calls back to another’s, or reveals some insight into the next.

The jurors, one assumes, select finalists based on the quality and rigor of the artists’ individual portfolios, so whatever interesting connections a viewer might take away from seeing all this divergent work together is up to fate and the zeitgeist. Finding themes or patterns among random variation is what we are trained to do as humans, not just as art critics, and we felt that the artwork on view here had throughlines of meditation or ritual through process/ performance, fabrication and mass production, and reconstructing or reframing memory, among others.

Normally, BmoreArt covers the Sondheim show by collecting reviews of every artist into a single article, published all at once. But this year we decided to slow it down a little, space them out, and let them breathe, devoting each day this week to an artist whose work is reviewed by a different person on our team. It felt like the appropriate way to mark an uncertain return to “real life.” Check back here every day for reviews of the work of Hae Won Sohn, Tsedaye Makonnen, Hoesy Corona, Lavar Munroe, and Jonathan Monaghan.

 

Links to watch recorded artist talks:

May 25 | Jonathan Monaghan Facebook stream / YouTube stream

June 10 | Lavar Munroe Facebook stream / YouTube stream

 

Links to event pages for upcoming artist talks:

June 17 | Hoesy Corona

June 24 | Tsedaye Makonnen

July 1 | Hae Won Sohn

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