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The Maryland State Arts Council Triennial: An Immersive Conversation at MAP

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The life of cities entails shifting spatial identities. Everything was once something else, especially where art spaces are concerned. The Maryland Art Place building on Saratoga Street has had many different lives in my time in Baltimore. I specifically remember a short-lived stint as Gallery 788 in which the interior was covered in half pipes for skateboarding and BMX riding. In a previous artistic life, the upstairs floors, including the now-closed Terrault Contemporary, were part of the Rooms Fall Apart, an immersive participatory art experience facilitated by the Copycat Theater Collective.

All that is to say, Maryland Art Place has lived up to its name, and the 2023 Triennial, organized in conjunction with the Maryland State Arts Council, was no exception to this theme of immersion with an impressive display of 81 artists selected from MSAC’s online registry. 

Spread over three floors, the 2023 MSAC Triennial replicated the tradition embedded in these past art experiences. Within the buildings’ maze-like corridors there were hidden studios, couches for crashing, and surprising vistas of the Bromo Arts District and surrounding downtown area, giving a glimpse of an older, denser, multi-layered Baltimore where the imagination could play on the rooftops. Because of this immersion, the viewer was only able to linger with so many of the pieces in the exhibition and have a variety of reactions and conversations.

 

MSAC Triennial Exhibition, 2023
Still from Margaret Rorison's "Departure"
Still from Aaron Oldenburg’s "Desert Mother," a virtual reality experience

On the top floor, the work of Margaret Rorison sat quietly on repeat, a 16 millimeter cyanotype colored projection in the hallway. In “Departure,” the blue of the short film loop was complemented by the ambient light of daytime viewing, adding to the already cool air that the corridor produced. 

Around the corner were two small radios, “Talking Heads,” a sculpture by Kei Ito. Static sound in all black would have been served better by a quieter, darker space and more volume, however the consistent ingenuity of Ito’s oeuvre shone through as the dueling static laden voices telegraphed an accidental delicacy.

Contrasting this piece, in the corner, was Aaron Oldenburg’s “Desert Mother,” a virtual reality experience reminiscent of Adult Swim’s Xavier: Renegade Angel. In it, the viewer seemed to be able to disperse seeds in a primordial desert landscape recalling a perhaps more benign and grounding version of the game that the Trisolarns use to manipulate humanity into its doom in The Three Body Problem. 

Downstairs, in the former Terrault gallery space, was a more monochromatic affair. Two black and white images spoke to one another, one by illustrator Saz Ross, another by photographer Sherry Insley. Insley’s work, “Ghost Forest,” is a high contrast photo of a grouping of trees, so stark that it almost appears rendered in graphite. Conversely, Ross’s “Lost” almost appears to be a woodcut, creating an inverse narrative of a history of reproductive mark making in popular media in the Western world. 

 

Poem by Sue Ellen Thompson with "Ghost Forest" photo by Sherry Insley, photo courtesy of the artist
Literary Room, MSAC Triennial, 2023
The Triennial Exhibition was at its strongest when little moments of connection happened, when multiple pieces began to make a narrative all their own in silent conversation.

This room also featured pieces from the literary gamut of the show. Sandwiched among these two stark woodland representations was Catrice Greer’s poem, One Day Soon, excerpted below: 

When the hush of our breaths are sweet welcome, not a poison
Behind a mask, one day soon
We will meet in the clearing, stand in the fall of what
Was meant to break us

The Triennial Exhibition was at its strongest when little moments of connection happened, when multiple pieces began to make a narrative all their own in silent conversation. With the combined curatorial powers of four jurors plus the insight of MAP’s knowledgeable inhouse staff, various genres often necessarily found a way to coexist, exemplified in the drawings, next to poems, sound pieces narrating silent film, and color occupying negative space. 

The wide breadth of work in one space recalled the feeling of a commencement show, often leaving the viewer to feel overwhelmed with the amount of work, finding it consistently at a high caliber. Rounding out this room visually, was René Treviño’s “Intuition Premonition Foresight,” heavy-lidded knowing totemic cyclopes. They seemed to luxuriously regard their opposite wall’s counterparts, “Handskills,” by Jessica Snow, a diagram of an ASL alphabet. Consistent with this show’s repeated juxtaposed narratives, perhaps these pieces were foretelling our eventual deafness as the hands of universal earbuds. 

 

René Treviño, Intuition Premonition Foresight, 2022, Acrylic, embroidered patches, lace appliques, plastic flies, rhinestones on leather
Virginia Sperry's "Spatial Inequality" Installation
MSAC Triennial Exhibition, 2023

The exhibition’s curatorial strength manifested on the first floor, with the wide variety of works having more space to breathe and be regarded from afar. This allowed for the art to enter into a conversation easier to discern. In Eric Briscoe’s large painting “Paradice,” the saturated graphic colors, resting illustrative form, and the background Disney motif acted in conversation with Rashad Muhammad’s “Field of Dreams,” a vivid fabric circle conjuring at once a field of flowers as well as the regalia of Carnivale, constructed in layers of synthetic flower petals, recalling a more elysian Solaris.

The duel of desire and necessary realism of the former piece, spoke in contrast to the uncynical hope of the latter. This brightness was repeated in stutter step as the exhibition moved further into the space from the street, notably with Dan Talib Latif Flounder’s work, “Missing Ramadan.” This silkscreen print recalls not only greeting cards and 90’s language text book illustration, but also graphic familiarity of old pulps novels, screened through an unexpectedly religious but still nostalgic context. 

The pieces moved thematically from smaller, more detailed collages and works with many moving parts, synthesizing a microcosm of the show itself, exemplified in the collage work of Anne Fine Foer, and Caitlin Gill’s bug-based collage, “Curio I.” Closer to the middle of the room on the left side, a series of works featured strong elements of sky and clouds, including similar timbres. The most magnetic of these was Jonna McKone’s “Dios,” depicting a young woman relaxing in the front of a car, directly gazing at the viewer in soft daylight with trees in the background. The work creates a human touch in a highly saturated environment. Showcasing McKone’s talents as an artist more concerned with lived narrative, it successfully breaks the fourth wall—provoking a reaction.  

 

Dios, photo by Jonna McKone
MSAC Triennial Exhibition, 2023, opening night
Sanzi Kermes & Liz Faust, MSAC Triennial 2023

Directly opposite of this was the strongest group of work in the show, all black and white, and overtly political. Erhan Us’ “Your Order Has Been Canceled,” a black acrylic flag with a single white star, feels like a Rage Against the Machine album cover lost in time. Japhet Chukwuma’s “Peculiar Things,” a black and white portrait of a group of young Black figures standing in a field, conveys an earth tone, gorpcore laden silence that would put Wes Anderson to shame.

Anysa Saleh’s iconographic “Banat Al Yemen Two,” a clear star of the show, offers a stark high contrast black and white photo, pushed to near abstraction, almost appearing in luminescence akin to traffic reflective gear, a roadside warning of the untold narratives of Muslim women centered in Saleh’s work. These three pieces, strong in their simplicity, made a compelling point for less is more. Demonstrating an economy of movement in the artist’s metaphorical hand, they provided calm and also weight.  

Adjacent to these works was the contrasting softness of Nora Howell’s woven fabric sculpture “Weight-Wait” and Virginia Sperry’s “Remnants: A Timeline,” which is reminiscent of Toi Ungkavatanapong’s early work. Howell’s piece, resembling at once the leavings of yarn creation and wool shearing, and the pendulum of a clock represented through some biological lens, stood out for its delicacy but was also somewhat lessened by its placement on the wall. Sperry’s “Remnants,” resembling a herd of horses rendered on a cave wall, synthesized this effect with the simplicity of nails. 

 

Anysa Saleh, Banat Al Yemen Two, Black and White Photograph
MSAC Triennial Exhibition, 2023
MSAC Triennial Exhibition, 2023

Together, these works created a space where the viewer could think of their relation to time, in narrative and historical dilation, differently. Howell’s time keeping device, something representative of the extended arms of capital and industry, is made out of the softest materials. And Sperry’s work is a reflection on modern human culture’s vast and eventual depopulation of the planet’s once plentiful flora and fauna, created with the most fundamental visual metaphor for growth, the nail. 

In this quiet conversation, among an exhibition full of them, was perhaps the backhanded compliment of a group show such as this: Despite our dramas, victories, and skills—we may be forgotten in the herds of time. But like the wild horses of eons past, the only option is to keep running. 

 

The 2023 MSAC Triennial Exhibition took place May 18-June 24 at Maryland Art Place and featured the work of: Esperanza Alzona, Jeanne Anderton, Mollye Bendell, Karin Birch, Eric Briscoe, Bryane Broadie, Megan Burak, Japhet Chukwuma, Kitty Clark & Ray C Shaw (Performing), Jacqui Crocetta, Julianna Dail, Michel Demanche, Liz Downing (Performing), Andrea Downs, Brian Dunn, Bria Edwards, Ashley Elizabeth Evans (Literary), Anna Fine Foer, Dan Talib Latif Flounders, Kristin Fuller, Marilyn Gates-Davis, Catrice Greer (Literary), Terence Hannum, Heather Harvey, Elizabeth Hill (Performing), Lillian Bayley Hoover, Susan Hostetler, Nora Howell, Chung-Wei Huang, Corey Hughes, Sherry Insley, Chloe Irla, Kei Ito, Lillian Jacobson, Meredith Johnson (Literary), Sylvia Jones (Literary), Suzy Kopf, Nate Larson, Tzippora Lasdun, Magnolia Laurie, Lauren R. Lyde, Caidy Lynn, Julie Maynard, Jennifer McBrien, Jonna Elinor McKone, Rie Moore (Performing), Rashad Muhammad, Andrew Nelson, Kate Norris, Bart O’Reilly, Aaron Oldenburg, Janet Olney, Shana Oshiro (Performing), Betsy Packard, Scott Pennington, Linda Plaisted, Barry Louis Polisar (Literary), Ann Quinn (Literary), Stephanie Ray (Performing), Margaret Rorison, Saz Ross, Anysa Saleh, Gretchen Schermerhorn, Jennifer N. Shannon (Literary), Laura Shovan (Literary), Becky Snider, Jessica Snow, Virginia Sperry, Ramón Tasat (Performing), Sue Ellen Thompson (Literary), Andrew Thorp, René Treviño, Elijah Trice, Erhan Us, Dmitrii Volkov, Jenny Walton, Steve Wanna, Yam Chew Oh, Tara Youngborg.

Photos courtesy of Maryland Art Place

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