‘Baltimore Rising’ addresses race, rights, violence in wake of Freddie Gray
by Tim Smith
Published by The Baltimore Sun November 4, 2016
An absorbing exhibit at MICA offers fresh perspectives on ever-pressing issues of race, rights, violence.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” acrylic on velvet, by Tony Shore; part of “Baltimore Rising” exhibit at MICA. (Joseph Martin Hyde / MICA / Handout)
“Baltimore Rising,” a 15-artist exhibit at the Lazarus Center of the Maryland Institute College of Art, won’t be on view for a long time — an unavoidable matter of scheduling — but it will leave a lasting impression.
The show was curated by Tony Shore, chair of the painting department at MICA. Initially, he set about finding space for a series of works he painted based on photographs of the Freddie Gray unrest taken by his friend J.M. Giordano, photo editor and staff photographer at the City Paper (which is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group).
“I felt his images needed to have multiple lives,” Shore says. “Then I thought it would be much more effective to not just show my work, but bring together other artists connected to Baltimore who have been responding to what’s going on in the city.”
The resulting exhibit addresses common themes from distinct angles. Even if some of the imagery is reiterative, there’s more than enough variety of medium and message to make for a profitable visit.
Time has hardly dimmed the bracing quality of Giordano’s color photos and Devin Allen’s stark black-and-white shots, each capturing a tense moment during destructive acts, peaceful protests and arrests.
Complementing these pieces is “Holding that Line,” a two-wall series of several dozen small photos by MICA faculty member Nate Larson.
On one wall, individual shots of police in riot gear at North and Pennsylvania avenues. On the opposite wall, individual shots of the “Citizen Protection Line” that faced those officers. Re-creating the gulf between the two sides makes a sobering effect.
That gulf is also captured vividly in Shore’s paintings, which incorporate a substance generally derided in artistic circles: velvet. That surface has a way of enriching the imagery. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” depicting a lone protester, his arms outstretched, standing in front of a long line of shielded police against the backdrop of a troubled red sky, is but one telling example.
Another reddish sky, this one almost apocalyptic, becomes a potent focal point in “City Planning,” a huge oil-and-collage work created over the summer by MICA faculty member Susan Waters-Eller. From a distance, the eye takes in a highway, wooded on one side, bleakly urban on the other. On closer examination, the road surface is revealed to contain satellite images of urban areas.
“That’s the Jones Fall [Expressway], which divided Baltimore,” the artist says. “The same things can be found in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Denver, Tampa. These things were done intentionally, sad to say. The result is that you keep people from communicating.”
The highly detailed painting includes a depiction of blight through the suspended portions of the expressway; thick dark clouds conjure up the Baltimore rioting. Visible through the horizon are what Waters-Eller describes as “penthouse views of the city.”
Logan Hicks’ striking stencil art piece, “Freddie Gray’s Day” (2015), is a subtly hued Baltimore street scene. But silhouetted against the sky — vertebrae.
For current-event art, there’s subtle wallpaper art by Lauren F. Adams. At first glance, you expect little Colonial figures adorning the old-fashioned design. Closer inspection reveals refined drawings of football player Colin Kaepernick and others who have “taken the knee” during the national anthem at sports events.
Pre-Baltimore-unrest works in the exhibit are as timely as ever.
Joyce J. Scott, Baltimore’s celebrated recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship this year, is represented here by her 1999 series of lithographs, “Soul Erased,” with its haunting imagery of skeletal figures. Scott’s “Head Shot” from 2008, an African-American head of beads and thread mounted on the barrel of a glass revolver, will always give one pause.
The exhibit has a kind of companion piece for “Head Shot.” It’s an equally provocative 2010 painting with confetti by MICA-trained Baltimore artist Jeffrey Kent — “The N-word,” depicting a revolver and a splattered black head.
Some of the most provocative works address the history of racism and slavery.
Sonya Clark, chair of the craft and material studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, approaches those ideas with an unsettling calm.
“Unraveled” consists of three piles of fibers, red, white and blue. “They are from a Confederate battle flag that she took apart, thread by thread,” Shore says. “She is deconstructing history.”
Clark’s “3/5 ths,” referring to the practice of counting a slave as three-fifths of a person, is just as powerful — a hanger holds a crisp white dress shirt; black threads form three stripes down the back.
The past is also addressed by South Carolina-born Baltimore artist Paul Rucker.
His video installation “When We Were Useful” begins with an animated version of a 19th-century drawing. As melancholy cello music plays on the soundtrack, we see two men hoe a field. A third man, with a little smile, slides into the picture, carrying a bundle of cotton.
Gradually, the film pulls back to reveal that this happy little scene adorns a $100 Confederate bill. If you take the seat provided for the installation, the implication of the video becomes even more pointed. It’s an old city bench bearing the slogan “Baltimore, the Greatest City in America.”
“Baltimore was a major supplier of slaves,” Rucker says. “We don’t acknowledge that history.”
More recent local history is spotlighted by MICA faculty member Olivia Robinson, whose pair of quilts “Near and Far Enemies: Shade” reflect on the practice of “redlining” to segregate Baltimore neighborhoods.
She took as her starting point the observation that trees tell the tale. On a large rectangular quilt, she outlines all manner of trees, the tallest in the center. Intricate lines and little LED lights dotting a map sewn into the quilt help the viewer trace where the biggest, shadiest trees were planted — you can imagine which parts of town they’re in.
Throughout the “Baltimore Rising” exhibit, viewers face the past as much as the present. It’s a valuable lesson.
If you go “Baltimore Rising” runs through Nov. 23 at MICA’s Lazarus Center, 131 W. North Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free. Call 410-669-9200, or go to mica.edu.