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Scale, Material, and Implication: The 2022 Sondheim Finalists Exhibition

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The Sondheim Finalists Exhibition of 2022 is scaled back compared to previous years, with three finalists instead of the usual five to seven. It’s a slightly less broad sampling of artists based in the Baltimore region—and thus fewer artists are given the opportunity to compete for a major prize and exhibit in a local museum. For the viewer, at least, it makes for a tighter show from which we can draw more connections and distinctions among the works on display. This is not what we usually expect from this annual event (nor is it the point), but it offers a compelling temperature check on a few subjects of artistic concern.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which operates the award, raised the stakes for its 17th-annual exhibition. In previous years, the top prize was $25,000 for one finalist, with the rest receiving smaller honorary amounts. According to BOPA director Donna Drew Sawyer, more than 300 artists applied, and the jurors—Catherine Morris, Jean Shin, and Kambui Olujimi—selected Maren Henson, Megan Koeppel, and James Williams II as finalists who are competing for a top prize of $30,000. The second place award is a fully funded residency in Italy, and the third-place prize is a residency in the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, which BOPA also runs. The winner will be announced on Thursday, July 28 in a ceremony followed by a reception from 6-8 p.m. at the Walters. 

Although this year’s Sondheim finalists show is significantly smaller than previous ones and takes up only half of the first-floor gallery at the Walters Art Museum, it feels anything but sparse. Each artist’s display is contained and yet draws concise outlines of their craft and concepts. 

There’s an undercurrent of materialism that runs through this show, much of the art being rooted in, or suggesting implications of, real-world issues of today. Within the work of Henson, Koeppel, and Williams, respectively, there are excavations of government conspiracies; meditations upon communal knowledge and creative repurposing; and confrontations with the process of racialization, specifically how Blackness is constructed. Working in installation, video, textiles, painting, and sculpture, the artists all place emphasis on material in the literal sense as well: the component parts are integral to the meaning of the work.

 

Press preview of Sondheim Finalist Exhibition at the Walters. Photo by Jade McDonnell/BOPA
Maren Henson at Sondheim press preview. Photo by Jade McDonnell/BOPA

Maren Henson

Henson’s multimedia installation, “Doomsday for the Birds,” opens the Sondheim finalists show. Tucked into a corner, “Doomsday” contends with US governmental subterfuge, intervention, and conspiracy; its intimate and semi-isolated placement in the gallery enhances that feeling of secrecy. 

A wall-sized charcoal drawing creates a vast environment that’s vaguely foreboding in its minimalism and scale, like the landscapes and interiors of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The perspective makes the viewer feel like we’re standing in the middle of an open rotunda, looking out onto a black void. There’s a semitransparent wooden fence or door right in the middle, a permeable barrier. A patch of black sparkling astroturf stands between the viewer and the drawing.

On the adjacent wall, a series of eight small charcoal drawings create a visual code. The drawings depict a dagger, a bird of prey in flight, an artichoke, a bowl or basin, some kind of small land mammal, bricks, a paper clip, and a perching bird. Projected on the third wall, a short looping video piece uses collaged black-and-white footage from atomic bomb testing in Nevada, backed with audio of Allen Dulles, the first CIA director. Video of broken dolls and debris eventually morphs into a landscape with a mushroom cloud. Dulles’ voice is layered and chopped up, with certain phrases plucked out and repeated: “There are times, it is necessary [unintelligible] to engage in [unintelligible]… to imperil the peace of the world… There are people who say that we, with regards to the CIA, are waging a secret war with an invisible government.” The pieces are starting to come together into another uncertain abstraction. 

Henson’s wall text notes that this installation references various conspiracy theories and the CIA’s role in them. She references President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination specifically, and even if you aren’t up on all the disputes about the circumstances of JFK’s death, the mere mention of it might trigger the infamous “grassy knoll” that figures into many theories—which then makes Henson’s hill of black astroturf a clearer slantwise reference. What, then, do those little drawings signify? I later googled “CIA operation names” and came upon a Wikipedia list from which I tried to match Henson’s symbols to associated official code names—Operation Gladio, Operation Condor, Project ARTICHOKE, Operation Washtub, Operation Mongoose, Operation Gold, Operation Paperclip, and Operation Mockingbird/Project Mockingbird. Whether or not my guesses are correct, they inspire about a dozen separate rabbit holes which only create more questions. 

In contemporary usage, the word “conspiracy” implies a value judgment and it’s practically equated with “craziness.” But conspiracies are real, and these aren’t outlandish QAnon theories that Henson is exploring for fun—these are documented revelations about a seemingly omnipotent and infallible governmental agency. Like a one-way mirror, Henson’s work feeds into a collective anxiety and suspicion about the masters of war pulling the strings.

 

Megan Koeppel at Sondheim press preview. Photo by Jade McDonnell/BOPA
Megan Koeppel, Stuffed Scraps, 2022, scrap fabric, onion skin dyed fabric, hand quilted. Photo by Jade McDonnell/BOPA

Megan Koeppel

Koeppel’s installation includes eight hand-sewn quilts of various shapes and orientations. Some hang out on the walls, others are displayed as objects you can maneuver around to view both sides of their construction. Hung on a narrow copper rod suspended from the ceiling, “Stuffed Scraps” is one of the latter. Its front side is flat but populated by six narrow thread-and-fabric drawings composed of pink, white, blue, and yellow geometric cutouts and bold red squiggly thread, set within a mustard yellow border. After meandering through the gallery and turning back around, I noticed its delightful and unexpected reverse side: a clustered assortment of multicolored fabric appendages, finger-sized and shaped like tiny bananas.

“Avocado Quilt” is a babydoll-sized piece whose modular design is composed of squares, rectangles, half-circles, and crescents; it reminds me of the aesthetics and markings on tennis or basketball courts, but also of maps or game boards. Earthy tones of goldenrod, cerulean, ivory, and pinkish brown create a warm, welcoming effect. 

Koeppel emphasizes process, practice, and the pull of the senses in her textile work. Hands and eye shapes appear throughout most of the pieces here, and all of them employ that gentle color palette, whose source is leftover fabric and cloth dyed with kitchen scraps and food waste, like avocado pits and onion skins. Recurring symbols of the hand and the eye make sense, then; those are the primary tools for seeing the world and making something of it, which, on the most fundamental level, is what the artist does.

The works are also outwardly playful. “Eye Quilt” is long and narrow, like a banner, but it hangs from a copper bracket on just three of its cloth handles, while the rest of it trails down midair and off the wall, flirting with the floor. Shapes, colors, and compositions are reminiscent of the blocks and sorting games that kids play with, sparking a sense of curiosity and joy that adulthood often complicates. 

Along with the thrill of experimentation, Koeppel’s statement emphasizes the “accessible nature of quilting” and the human connections that this practice, and natural dyeing, foster “well beyond a gallery space.” This community relationship comes through best in “Hands Quilt,” a busy array of grids, crescents, and checkerboards with delicate color variations and patterned moments, printed and stitched. Hands are everywhere, all over it, like a visual record of the movement required in quilting this piece, or in reverence to the communal and intergenerational relationships that pass down this material knowledge and skill. 

 

James Williams II at Sondheim press preview. Photo by Jade McDonnell/BOPA
James Williams II, How to Completely Disappear. Photo by Rebekah Kirkman

James Williams II 

Williams’s work confronts what he calls the “Black construct,” and he assembles his paintings with layers of wood panel, cut felt and tufted yarn, resin, plexiglass, and paint. He turns those materials and shapes into scenes, which also turns the materials into signifiers: in “Frosted,” we understand the white tufted yarn as snow; black velcro behind it reads as a dark winter sky; an oblong foot shape made of painted wood and placed in the snow reads as, well, a footprint. What happens when the materials morph in other contexts? 

“How to Completely Disappear” depicts a nighttime scene with a Bigfoot character made of black tufted yarn caught walking in the dark painted woods. Something’s up with his face, though. The cartoonish eyes and mouth of Bigfoot resemble a racist minstrel caricature. Then the thick lavender border edge of the painting containing various black shapes catches the eye, turning the large painting into an I-Spy type game: find the bat, sheep, comb, bird, boot, tie, and other shapes in the foliage. 

Some of Williams’ compositions come with a B-movie type of creepiness—they create a charged mood, but also set you up to laugh at the artifice. “Descendents of Cain” is like a shot from a slasher movie: an orange-sleeved arm emerges from the left edge and the hand grips a dagger shedding a stream of blood. The hand casts a stark shadow below, a single piece of black velcro forming the detailed silhouette. 

In “Calm Before,” velcro is employed as shadows for painted wood raindrops across a mostly abstract scene. The scene looks like feeling lost in the woods in the evening, but the dense landscape also feels theatrical and, again, constructed like setpieces waiting for their turn on stage. A man’s silhouetted head emerges, backlit with pink paint, underneath the raindrops. 

The distance between what you are seeing and what you are reading into it is Williams’ sweet spot, shown most intensely in the painting/video piece “BLK/M/5’8”/Checkered Sweatshirt/Dark Jeans/Brown Boots or in short Self-Portrait with Checkered Sweatshirt.” The painted sweatshirt’s arms are held up, and although there’s not a human figure in it, the image is enough to signal everything that this disarmed pose stands for. Where the head would be is an LCD screen with the artist’s hands creating a shadow portrait in profile on the wall. We’re reading and recognizing the shadow as a Black figure and simultaneously watching Williams’ hands create the shadow. The looping video gives this piece an endless tension, the hands always in subtle movement, until at one point they part and shatter the illusion before starting over together again.

Williams says this body of work sprang from a question from his young daughter about the “discursive formation of the Black race.” Through this work and on multiple levels, Williams points out how signifiers and constructs of race are mutable and unstable. He uses a tricky combination of absurdity and grave seriousness, the outcomes dependent on every possible permutation. 

 

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The Sondheim Finalists Exhibition is on view at the Walters Art Museum through September 28, 2022.

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