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Baltimore’s Best Art Exhibits of 2021

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BmoreArt’s Picks: December 28 – January 3

We have survived another year of the pandemic and the arts continue to provide sustenance, connection, camaraderie, and economic stimulation. The cultural landscape is constantly in flux, with artist-run spaces closing like Resort and Area 405 (in the process of being sold), and ICA Baltimore planning a move to a new location. College galleries throughout the region, especially at Notre Dame of Maryland, Loyola, Goucher, UMBC, and MICA, stepped up their game this year, mounting ambitious exhibitions and juried opportunities for regional artists. This year we were encouraged to see the Baltimore Museum of Art collect more work by the artists of our place and time, exhibiting and supporting them with the resources necessary to accomplish ambitious goals, and the Walters hosting a giant retrospective of Baltimore-based modernist jeweler Betty Cooke. 

In 2021, nonprofit spaces like MAP, Creative Alliance, and The Peale/Carroll Mansion, have assumed an even greater role in building community and creating professional exhibition opportunities. School 33’s galleries, previously a robust and vital exhibition space managed by BOPA, have lain dormant for almost two years, although artists continue to create work in their onsite studios and BOPA recently announced upcoming exhibits at the Bromo Seltzer Tower galleries and Top of the World in the Inner Harbor.

The Sondheim Prize exhibition returned in 2021, hosted at The Walters, and it was a treat to experience some of the best contemporary art of the region in person. We look forward to the resuscitation of Artscape in 2022, the possibility of a new Baltimore-based print fair, and The Last Resort, a residency founded by Derrick Adams to bring Black creatives to Baltimore, as well as the contributions of local independent curators like Thomas James, Liz Faust, Joy Davis, Sharayna Christmas, and Alex Ebstein. 

Even under the best circumstances, Baltimore can be a humbling place to live and work as an artist, but our sense of shared community purpose and creative potential keeps us going. As always, we hope next year will be better, that the mistakes we made in 2021 have made us wiser, and that continued discussions around diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility will create more accountability for our institutions and more necessary resources for those doing the work. 

— Cara Ober

 

Ten Best Exhibits of 2021:

This year the BmoreArt team strove to cover as many exhibitions as we could, so our 2021 Top Ten List reflects our ability to travel and to budget our resources to review an overabundance of excellent projects and shows. We are pleased to present these ten exhibits, some from museums and others from galleries, with eight located in Baltimore and two based in Washington, DC.

 

All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art
  1. All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art

November 14, 2021–April 3, 2022

Curated by Leila Grothe, All Due Respect, featuring four contemporary Baltimore-based artists—Lauren Frances Adams, Mequitta Ahuja, LaToya M. Hobbs, and Cindy Cheng—is a sprawling, diverse exhibit filling the BMA’s contemporary wing upstairs galleries. The show’s organizing principle is less conceptual or formal and more professional: each artist has received support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and show was meant to run concurrently with the BMA’s upcoming Joan Mitchell retrospective, currently on exhibit at SFMOMA. The pandemic messed up the timing, so now there’ll be just a short overlap once the retrospective opens in March 2022, but this show stands on its own because each artist received significant project support from the BMA to make a new body of work, resulting in exciting and ambitious moves evident throughout.

Adams’ research-focused practice recycles and flips decorative signifiers of wealth that relate a whitewashed version of history. Her vinyl wallpaper quilt installation references specific objects from the BMA’s collection, including Baltimore album quilts, paintings, furniture, and prints, among others. In big, meaty paintings that probe the profundity of care and loss, Ahuja intertwines personal and art historical references. The artist was a new mother while her own mother was dying, a bewildering experience of both grief and care work. The primacy and time-consuming nature of these caretaking roles led to a more sculptural painting method after a decade of creating super-detailed contextual self portraits

Hobbs’ enormous and masterful carved wood panels depict scenes from the working artist-mother’s day. A printmaker by trade, Hobbs chose to present the 15 cherry wood panels, painted and inked in black, to emphasize the process, labor, and skill of printmaking, rather than showcasing print as a product. Cheng’s installation conjures a gut feeling of paranoia and conspiracy. In a living room scene, a one-eyed and bodiless face relaxes upon a couch whose texture can only be described as “hotdog-like,” while an animated talk show discusses Satanic references in Scooby-Doo. On the periphery, silk flower garlands contain beaded phrases from a gnostic poem (“I am the knowledge of my inquiry” and “be on your guard”) that echo the confirmation bias and dangerous misreadings of reality that pervade American culture and politics.

—Rebekah Kirkman

 

Orbis Tertius -Hlaer-to-Jangr at ICA by Eduardo Corral

2. Orbis Tertius -Hlaer-to-Jangr- at ICA Baltimore

May 14–June 30, 2021

Overwhelming in every sense and incredible in scale, scope, and color, the Orbis Tertius -Hlaer-to-Jangr- exhibition at ICA Baltimore was a feast for the senses. Not just in the cavernous L-shaped gallery that other ICA shows have commanded, this exhibit by MICA MFA graduate and professor Eduardo Corral (aka TlaLoC) is realized also in the North Avenue Market’s back rooms and giant storage hangars, a series of creepy basements, and a decrepit upstairs bowling alley. In every space, the artist transforms the site with neon and darkness, video projection and sculpture, as well as smoke, sound, and smell.

Corral, an interdisciplinary artist, illustrator, graphic designer, and educator born in Monterrey, Mexico, takes this new language and conflates, inflates, and translates it into three-dimensional objects, projected video, and dystopian spaces that surround you in magical and menacing ways. This exhibit is layered and complex, maximal in every possible way, and the North Avenue Market, as a vague historic site representing Baltimore’s past, is complicit in this wild ride. Each gallery visit was appointment-based and required a tour guide to direct a small group through cavernous, dark spaces, creepy stairs, and seemingly endless hallways, with the building actually mirroring this idea of history and the accessibility of hidden worlds if you dare to explore them.

—Adapted from Cara Ober’s interview with Eduardo Corral 

Read more about the project in BmoreArt’s Print Journal 12.

 

Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line at the Walters Art Museum

3. Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line at the Walters Art Museum

September 19, 2021–January 2, 2022

When I learned about Cooke’s retrospective curated by Jeannine Falino at The Walters, I was thrilled but also curious about how they could display small metal objects in enormous galleries without them getting lost in the space or feeling absurdly tiny. Despite a diminutive size, Betty Cooke’s jewelry speaks to comprehensive ideas where the most unpretentious shapes create an expansive sense of possibility. But how to manifest these ideas at a scale that resonates in a museum?

The Circle and the Line features 160 unique objects, and most are so small they can fit into the palm of a hand, so the curators and exhibition designers had a huge challenge in establishing the myriad small, sparkly objects as significant works of art and clearly signifying that the Walters galleries are not a jewelry store. 

“One of the things that is so impressive about Betty, for anyone thinking about a life in the arts, is that she never waited for opportunities to come to her,” says Jeannine Falino, the curator, summing up my own takeaway from the exhibit. “Betty has an incredible work ethic. She wastes no time. She is always busy. She has always had faith in herself and gets up and does the work every day and wants that work to have an impact. To me, this is what has kept her in business over seventy years. Thanks to Bill [her late husband], her absolute partner in all things, she designed new work and commissions for her devoted clientele. Nobody comes close to her on that level.”

—Adapted from Cara Ober’s review of The Circle and the Line 

 

Sonya Clark: Tattle, Bristle, and Mend at NMWA

4. Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend at National Museum of Women in the Arts

March 3–June 27, 2021

Sonya Clark’s show, Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, took over an entire floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC early this summer. The show was a massive undertaking that showcased 100 works in a survey spanning Clark’s career, divided into rooms roughly by different bodies of work. The organization made the visitor feel as if they were in conversation with Clark, walking from one thought to another and through the career of one of the most important living artists of our time. 

Clark’s work positions and contrasts artifacts and symbols of the Black experience in America through her chosen materials of human hair, glass beads, combs, cotton, sugar, currency, cloth, and thread, among others, to channel her ideas about unrecognized Black makers throughout history who utilized the same sorts of craft practices that she herself employs. Often read through a political lens, the work is timely, important, and as Clark herself summed up for BmoreArt, “also authentic, also formal, also historical, also cultural, also beautiful, also ugly.”

—Adapted from Suzy Kopf’s interview with Sonya Clark

 

Ozone Atmosphere at Springsteen

5. Ozone Atmosphere at Springsteen Gallery

January 23–February 27, 2021

Ozone Atmosphere, featuring the work of Sandy Williams IV and Monsieur Zohore, was paired with a staggering exhibition text by scholar Tiffany E. Barber that opened with the questions, “What does it mean to watch something live and die in the same moment? What does it mean to be Black in America right now?”  The bare walls of Springsteen gave way to the show’s tremendous messages. Each artist’s work spoke their own personal histories within the African diaspora and their own unique locations in this atmosphere.

A video of Williams played on a loop, his gaze both soft and penetrating; periodically the artist moved slightly to silence an alarm clock. His diminutive wax-monument replicas marked another chronology displayed throughout the gallery, lit and decomposing during a time of pandemic and civil unrest. Framed photos of Williams’ relatives on horseback appeared in concert with the melting monuments. Throughout the gallery, there was a direct nod to the temporality and impact of Black life, backpacks that when activated by the touch of human contact began counting down moments until their next encounter. 

Zohore’s familiar, multicolored, and multivalent paper-towel artworks were on display, but I was most moved by his telescope sculpture, engraved with a line from Langston Hughes’s 1921 poem “Stars”: “Reach up your hand, dark boy, and take a star.” In the accompanying room, his luminescent dragon balls, marked with stars, seemed to vibrate inside of an acrylic terrarium, nested amongst grass that would inevitably wither away over the course of the exhibition. His opened Windex bottles with stalks of bird of paradise flowers rested in configurations with William’s monuments. 

The work served as reliquaries for the two artists’ first collaborative exhibition, as well as the inevitable impermanent but enduring nature of Black life at this moment. It was the most stunning showing of artwork I’ve ever seen at Springsteen. 

—Teri Henderson

 

Edgar Reyes: Fragments at VisArts

6. Edgar Reyes: Fragments at VisArts

January 13–February 28, 2021

Both past and contemporary images of Reyes’ family and their connections to land, culture, and religion appear throughout Fragments. The work is part archive, part homage, an accumulation of intergenerational memory and experiences shaped by migration, displacement, loss, and work. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Reyes and his mother moved to the United States when he was around five years old. He has early memories of Mexico and the migration, but most of his memories are from Northern Virginia, where they eventually settled, and where his mother and his step-dad, who migrated from El Salvador in the ‘90s, and his younger sisters still live. 

Reyes takes seriously his role within his family and as an artist, preserving these stories in order to map and identify what has shaped their lives. “I feel like many stories, unfortunately, are just forgotten,” he says. “Not just for immigrants, but for a lot of people, if we’re not significant in history, if our families are moving from place to place, things just get left.”

—Adapted from Rebekah Kirkman’s profile of Edgar Reyes

 

Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic at Eubie Blake Cultural Center

7. Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center 

August 14–September 25, 2021

In Repercussions: Redefining the Black Aesthetic, a choir of artists called you to be still, pay attention, slow down, and savor the glory of a gallery full of Black contemporary art. Curated by Thomas James, this exhibition at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center gave an opportunity to recognize a connection between multimedia works by Baltimore- and DC-based Black artists and your own lived experiences. According to the exhibition text, the show “explores the genealogy, spiritual, political, and economic power that objects possess” through media, methods, and meaning that tell stories and reveal personal histories.”

The show’s larger focus was Black material culture, featuring objects that contain history and tradition. Techniques like weaving, assemblage, collage, and painting were highlighted, and each thread, brushstroke, cut-out, weave, application, and arrangement of material reified the idea of creating through memory and ritual.

Repercussions presented 31 works by 16 artists: Adewale Alli, Alexandre Amegah, Antonio McAfee, Asha Elana Casey, Bria Sterling Wilson, Charles Phillippe Jean-Pierre, Desmond Beach, Ky Vassor, Lehna Huie, Lionel Frazier White III, QRCKY, Rebecca Marimutu, Sarah Stefana Smith, Suldano Abdiruhman, Victoria Walton, and Wesley Clark. For many of the artists, the creation of the works is a meditative practice, channeling the Divine and connecting the artist with some ancestral heritage.

–Adapted from Teri Henderson’s review of Repercussions

 

スウィートホーム SWEET HOME at Critical Path Method

8. スウィートホーム SWEET HOME at Critical Path Method

September 25–November 27, 2021

SWEET HOME was unique, in that it was the only exhibit of contemporary Japanese art in a Baltimore gallery in recent history we are aware of. Much of the work was absurdly funny, and the title was based on a Japanese horror film, adding another element of dark humor. Many of the works focused on absurdist, surrealist flips on the domestic and were integrated with the gallery itself, a renovated Bolton Hill brownstone, such as a rat cage concealing miniature portraits and a birdcage with an oil painting of an egg and feathers inside. Filling two stories, giant abstract paintings provided scale shifts to wall-sized fiber works and ceramic sculptures installed on the floor and in shelving units.

This group show featured work by ten Japanese artists: COBRA, Miho Dohi, Ken Kagami, Aiko Hachisuka, Naotaka Hiro, Akira Ikezoe, E’wao Kagoshima, Soshiro Matsubara, Trevor Shimizu, and Yui Yaegashi. I found it compelling that the show was also running concurrently with another show at Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York featuring the same ten artists, with specific work in conversation with the pieces at CPM.

Organized by Kathryn Brennan and titled by COBRA, スウィートホーム SWEET HOME was presented by CPM Baltimore and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York.

—Teri Henderson

 

Se Jong Cho: Eclipse: Infinite Ending at Catalyst Contemporary

9. Se Jong Cho: Eclipse: Infinite Ending at Catalyst Contemporary 

March 25–May 22, 2021

Se Jong Cho’s joyful solo show of paintings crossed flowers with stages of a solar eclipse. In Eclipse: Infinite Ending, which opened with the vernal equinox this spring at Catalyst Contemporary in Mount Vernon, Cho explored the theme of the return of the light after a solar eclipse, which felt like an apt re-emergence of in-person exhibitions and limited-capacity gatherings as we entered what was then hoped to be the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While pandemic progress looks bleaker in December than it did in March, Cho’s paintings, which she considers to be a “catalyst for retelling memories,” are still a tangible bright spot from 2021. These painted fictions are the polar opposite of the facts Cho derives from her day-job as a scientist, and yet she reiterates that her background as a researcher and observer makes her a better artist. “I realized, as a scientist, I keep hitting the limits of how I can make change in the world,” she says. “I think, through painting, I’m cultivating a platform to tell a story to a larger body of people and reach deeper into the people because the knowledge that I gather, the facts I gather, are superficial. But the stories that I can tell with painting can go even deeper.” This allows viewers to draw their own conclusions from the collision of symbols, geometry, and color.

—Adapted from Suzy Kopf’s profile of Se Jong Cho in BmoreArt Issue 11: Comfort

 

Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils and Sophia Belkin: Ground Swell at Resort

10. Sasha Fishman: The Space Between Your Nostrils and Sophia Belkin: Ground Swell at Resort

June 5–July 31, 2021

The words extraction, exhaustion, and restoration kept pinging around my mind after viewing the final two shows at Resort’s downtown gallery, Sasha Fishman’s The Space Between Your Nostrils and Sophia Belkin’s Ground Swell.

Fishman’s installation in Resort’s storefront display resembled a sort of crazed laboratory scene, with a green uranium-glass cast of the artist’s jaw spitting water into a resin and fiberglass fountain, a preening papier-mache horse with tentacle-legs, plaster- and gelatin-cast hagfish, bioplastic slabs, and so many molted Brood X cicada shells. The individual pieces and parts were somewhat comically inscrutable, but as a whole, the installation was evidence of the messy path toward discovery. In her search for more sustainable art materials, Fishman’s work is all about process, experimentation, and potential. 

In Resort’s main gallery, Belkin’s solo show, Ground Swell, explored how what might appear as dormancy is actually a wildly generative phase for living creatures. Also inspired by the summer’s emergence of the Brood X cicadas, Belkin’s dyed-textile and embroidered paintings explored the beautiful, secret growth that creatures accomplish underground. Embroidered elements and photograph fragments gave structure and presence to more ambient visual dyed areas of Belkin’s compositions, which sometimes resembled maps and tunnels and elsewhere resembled botanical forms.

The fact of the gallery’s closure rounded out the shows’ themes of work, nature, rest, and regeneration, and the shows were beautiful and fascinating in their own right. And though it’s always kind of a bummer when an artist-run space closes, we found a small seed of hope for new growth through the work on view.

—Adapted from Rebekah Kirkman’s review of Ground Swell and The Space Between Your Nostrils 

 

Thank you for supporting our work at BmoreArt in 2021! If you want to engage with us in 2022, we hope you’ll consider subscribing or making a tax deductible donation online before the end of the year.

 

 

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