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Respect Where It’s Due

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BmoreArt’s Picks: January 25-31

Institutions are great at making gestures and proclamations, less great at follow-through. The past few years in particular have seen numerous museums and universities issuing grandiose statements about equity and diversity but with few methods for audiences to measure their progress and hold them accountable. So then, when certain programs or shows take on sociopolitical issues, one might wonder, “Is that what they meant? Is this going to fix it?” (Within the workplace, concerns of equity are hardly rectified without workers organizing from the bottom-up, hence recent increases in unionization.) Museum exhibitions generally still fixate on big names and artists repped by New York galleries in order to attract an audience, rarely giving local artists enough—if any—room to shine. 

It was thus pleasantly refreshing to view All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Not pinned to a conceptual theme, the show is instead centered around a professional connection, featuring four Baltimore artists who have at some point in their careers received support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. All Due Respect was supposed to run concurrently with the Joan Mitchell retrospective, but the pandemic altered the timelines, so the retrospective debuted at SFMOMA instead of the BMA in 2021 and opens this March in Baltimore. Initially in conjunction with the larger exhibit, artists Lauren Frances Adams, Mequitta Ahuja, LaToya M. Hobbs, and Cindy Cheng were given significant project support from the BMA in order to create new bodies of work, now displayed in connected but discrete galleries (upstairs in the Contemporary Wing) and curated by Leila Grothe.

As an exhibition, All Due Respect opens up wide and allows viewers to find their way independently through each artist’s installation, mainly because the show does not attempt to shoehorn these artists into any delimiting or overbearing scheme. Of course, there is wall text explaining elements of each artist’s work, but it’s concise and intriguing rather than definitive. The connections that emerge among the artworks do so organically and without didacticism—there’s a fluidity in the structure that enhances the overall viewing experience. All Due Respect raises questions about relationships and conceptual frameworks that exist in small cities and professional circles and recognizes that these ties matter, even if abstractly. 

 

Lauren Adams, installation view of Forget-me-not, 2021, at Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Rebekah Kirkman

Adams’ immersive and enormous wallpaper installation Forget-me-not (2021) immediately drapes the viewer in a cold, thick nostalgia both familiar and suspicious, like the living room of a distant relative. Resembling a Baltimore album quilt, the vinyl wallpaper with hand-painted collage contains wreaths, birds, plants, and Americana imagery that provokes closer looking, where you find fragments of text and unusual visual references embedded into the traditional quilt designs. (It’s a clever way to engage viewers, to give them something specific to grasp onto and research later.)

In one square, a brown bird stenciled with a doily pattern grasps the Baltimore-born writer and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poetry collection Forest Leaves, with lines from one poem reproduced in the surrounding laurel leaves. Another square featuring a squat red building bears a sign that says “FREE LABOUR STORE,” with stars above the structure containing a statement against slavery. Leaf shapes on the ground of this scene act like footnotes, pointing us to 19th-century Baltimore shop owners Michael Lamb and Benjamin Lundy’s refusal to sell anything made with slave labor. 

For this site-specific work, Adams turned to the BMA collection and archives, researching and examining objects and furniture “produced for a powerful class of moneyed white Baltimorean elites” in the first half of the 19th century. Forget-me-not, which takes inspiration from Baltimore album quilts from the 1840s-50s, is joined by decorative objects from the BMA’s collection, such as an early 19th-century chair adorned with a painting of the estate of Maryland merchant Robert Gilmor, who was also an enslaver. Placed squarely in the middle of the gallery and facing the wallpaper installation, the chair is a subtle shock, like a whispered remark heard as soon as the room’s noise died down. 

There is a potent link between Adams’ painting and the decorative arts, objects that tell stories about the people who commissioned and owned them. Often these fixtures and furniture are presented as little more than neutral, beautiful signifiers of status and wealth, a framing that complements American white supremacist myths of prosperity and obscures the horrors of the slave trade. The stories we learn are always only ever partial, this work reminds us. In referencing these preserved items, Adams is coaxing out histories that white America is still too cowardly to face.

 

Lauren Adams, Spolia, 2021, Girandole mirror from BMA collection, paint on six panels; Girandole mirror, c. 1810, gilt, ebonized white pine, metal, possibly a tin-mercury mirror. Photo courtesy BMA
Lauren Adams, installation view of Forget-me-not, 2021, at Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Rebekah Kirkman
Mequitta Ahuja, installation view of works in All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Photo by Mitro Hood

In the adjacent gallery, Mequitta Ahuja’s figurative paintings tackle the unwieldy heft of grief and care. Building upon her past work of refiguring the art historical canon through self-portraiture, Ahuja’s new paintings feel more sensory and raw; the artist made them at the end of her mother’s life, according to the wall text. In the 7-by-6-foot painting “Mother” (2019), roughly four figures emerge from gestures in blood-red oil paint.

Applying paint and then pushing it around with what looks like squeegees or palette knives and scraping it off the canvas, Ahuja achieves their intertwining forms, which appear to writhe, console, and rest. There’s a pulsing urgency in each of these paintings that feels different from some of Ahuja’s previous work, especially the smaller series on polyester drafting film, in which figures struggle into different formations of a crowd, becoming entities of energy within the frames.

In the painting “Primary Love,” Ahuja uses multiple modes and styles of portraiture at once, from the gestural to the traditional and naturalistic to the graphic. Standing in her studio, the artist holds up a portrait of a parent and child. Behind her are other self-portraits and fragments of two works that are also on view in this show, “Generator” and “Mother Child and Child.” As with her previous work, inserting herself and her own life into paintings that reference and reappropriate canonical paintings remains a critical concern—and a powerful tactic while representing such intense and vulnerable personal experiences.

 

Mequitta Ahuja, “Generator” and “Mother Child and Child," installation view of works in All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Photo by Mitro Hood
Mequitta Ahuja, installation view of works in All Due Respect at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Photo by Mitro Hood
LaToya Hobbs, Carving Out Time (detail), 2020-2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood

LaToya M. Hobbs’ monumental “Carving Out Time” anchors the next gallery with five fifteen-foot-long scenes depicting a day in the life of the working artist/mother at home. Each scene comprises three cherry wood panels, inked or painted black, which Hobbs then carved into with handheld tools. The bare wood’s warmth gives form to every detail within the huge realistic scenes, which show the artist with her partner and their two young children waking up in the morning, doing virtual school and playing at home, fixing dinner, and getting ready for bed. The final scene is the only one with Hobbs alone, in her studio and surrounded by her work, in a pose reminiscent of Kerry James Marshall’s 2009 untitled painting of a Black woman holding a giant palette. Hobbs’ art surrounds her, including 2019’s “Birth of a Mother,” offering a different kind of intimacy that builds upon the tenderness of the other scenes.

Unlike the many famous white male painters who stole from indigenous non-Western cultures in their work and then got called geniuses (see Picasso, Gauguin), Hobbs has no interest in concealing her influences. Each scene features recognizable works of art by Elizabeth Catlett, Valerie Maynard, Kerry James Marshall, and other Black artists influential to Hobbs—as well as art made by her kids. Similar to Ahuja’s remixing of canonical works, Hobbs’ references exude confidence, power, and mastery. With each loving detail, carved out with myriads of crisp hatch marks, the work demonstrates the painter and printmaker’s broad array of skills in depiction and nuance. The range of emotion and commotion, the dynamic patterning, the perspective and lucidity of each room, all carved with tiny, precise marks, cohere into a tribute to the labor and care required in the life of a woman-artist-mother. 

 

LaToya Hobbs, Carving Out Time (detail), 2020-2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood
Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood
LaToya Hobbs, Carving Out Time (detail), 2020-2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood
Cindy Cheng, Nest (detail), 2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood

All Due Respect closes out with Cindy Cheng’s riveting installation which delves into questions about the formation of extremist beliefs and leaves you with a sense of paranoia. With its showroom styling and discount-store decor, the environment reminds me of the odd comfort of the K-Mart stores and plastic-smelling Christian living rooms I grew up in—but taken to far more absurd realms. Part of the multimedia Nest (2021) is a projected segment from an evangelist talk show called Eagle’s Nest Ministries, which according to the wall text debuted on cable in the 1980s and still produces online content today.

The segment features a man named Phil Phillips, who made a name for himself “exposing” hidden satanic references in children’s toys and pop culture, in conversation with host Gary Greenwald (no relation to my partner’s father with the same name). The pair discuss how Satan speaks to kids through the cartoon Scooby-Doo and, like so many right-wing conspiracies, it is simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious, and mildly compelling, but most of all terrifying, considering the right’s stranglehold on the U.S.

For this installation, Cheng turned the talk show segment into an animated cartoon, and it is projected onto a pattern-glass doorway which looks into a living room scene with a curious, one-eyed and bodiless doll who sits transfixed on the couch. Handmade home goods mingle with store-bought and prefab elements in the installation. A ceramic fountain cycles water from a hand-shaped spout into a basin full of tonguelike leaves. A triangular “monolith” stands in the gallery’s center, its speckled walls (reminiscent of a big-box store fitting room’s) helping to camouflage fake flies and front-door peepholes. A series of silk flower garlands decorate the perimeter walls, with beads strung along them spelling out mysterious phrases from a gnostic poem: “Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or anytime <3 Be on your guard” and “I am on the knowledge of my inquiry and the finding of those who seek me.” The phrases enhance the overall sense of paranoia pervading the entire dimly lit space, but also the unhinged beliefs catalyzed by capitalism that are tearing everything apart. 

 

Cindy Cheng, Thunder, Perfect Mind (detail), 2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood
Cindy Cheng, Nest (detail), 2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood
Cindy Cheng, Monolith, 2021. Installation view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mitro Hood

Journeying through All Due Respect was a good exercise for both heart and mind, and multiple viewings of the show have been rewarding: I’ve noticed new details I previously missed, formed new connections, and heard different echoes across the galleries that have surfaced in my thinking at other times. Seeing artists whose work I’ve followed for years on display in a museum is always exciting, and it isn’t an entirely novel thing at this point—and this isn’t Adams, Ahuja, Hobbs, or Cheng’s first rodeo. But the amount of space their work takes up in the BMA, without any apparent compromises for space, is significant and enables viewers to deeply engage with it.

The exhibition is proof positive of the depths that Baltimore-affiliated artists can probe when given time and material support to do their work, as well as the globally respected context of an exhibition in an important museum. It seems obvious to say, but it is impossible to sustain an art career without the money and opportunities that institutions can offer to artists they believe in—and which so many more Baltimore-based artists and audiences deserve. Perhaps this is just the latest of many ambitious future investments our local art museum will make in regional contemporary artists, evidence of the wild vision and talent abundant here.

 

Photos by the author and also by Mitro Hood, courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art, as noted

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