Our Favorite 2018 Exhibitions in Baltimore and Washington DC Explored Social Justice, Identity Politics, and Diverse Narratives
It’s definitely been a year of change. In 2018, there were too many great exhibitions in Baltimore and Washington DC for our team to cover, but we pride ourselves on providing a devoted and credible source for art criticism in the region when many publications have cut back on arts coverage and experienced art writers.
The year started off at a high point, and we take special satisfaction in the unveiling of Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, alongside Kehinde Wiley’s of President Barack Obama, at the National Portrait Gallery. We continue to marvel at the far reaching impact of this work, which has earned a significant place in art history, impacting the lives of countless individuals in expansive and meaningful ways.
Our top ten list for the year comes nowhere near capturing all of the brilliant and ambitious projects manifested in the region, hence our additions of honorable mentions, but we feel good about the range, depth, and diversity represented. In 2018, women and artists of color continued to occupy more of a spotlight and we look forward to this momentum to continue into 2019 and beyond. We are proud to see local and regional artists showing in museums, not just galleries, and look forward to more opportunities to view the work of Baltimore and DC-based artists in an international context.
1. Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Throughout his career, Jack Whitten was a consummate innovator who explored and refined new techniques to visualize what he called “symbolic abstractions.” Rather than subscribe to traditional narrative painting formulas, or the idea that a painting must illustrate a particular idea, Whitten focused on the materiality of the paint and the process of making the artwork to construct meaning. Although he graduated from Cooper Union in 1964 and taught painting there from 1974-95, he did not gain significant fame until near the end of his life. Whitten recently passed away, at the age of 78 in January 2018. – Angela N. Carroll
2. Rachel Whiteread at the National Gallery of Art
The exhibition considers a series of important moments and series within Whiteread’s career chronologically, beginning with the collection of works presented in her first solo exhibitions at the Carlisle Gallery in London in 1988 and the Chisendale Gallery in 1990 that made her famous in her home country, and ending with three collage-drawings from 2012 that point to the significance of drawing and collecting to her practice.
Forming an additional rejection of the modes of ahistorical formalism and “pure process” discourse that have shaped modernism and its meanings for decades, Whiteread’s work does not just pose a threat to the patriarchal narratives of sculpture and modern art that live on and breathe comfortably within the art institution, but acknowledges the institutional and ideological barriers to those who are cast aside by institutions of all kinds. – Jordan Amirkhani
3. Roberto Lugo at The Walters Art Museum
It was Lugo’s dedication to current social justice issues and urban identity, inspired by hip hop and graffiti in America that made him a perfect fit for the opening of The Walters Art Museum’s opening of 1 West Mount Vernon Place, formerly the Hackerman House, a space used historically to exhibit ceramics. The newly finished mansion, now open to the public, will exhibit selections from the Walter’s vast selection of ceramics, which are enlivened and challenged by the presence of Lugo’s vases, urns, and sculptural works inspired directly from the museum’s permanent collection. – Cara Ober
4. Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance at the BMA
Meleko Mokgosi’s triumphant Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition Acts of Resistance closes this weekend. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mokgosi, who hails from Botswana and now lives and works in New York, has quietly ascended as one of the greatest living painters. His epic works blend the European oil painting tradition with contemporary African imagery and the sensibilities of an installation artist. In this latest show, Mokgosi responds to the BMA’s permanent collection. Installed in the museum’s European wing, Acts of Resistance defiantly subverts and compliments the centuries of Western art history it follows. – Michael Anthony Farley
5. Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project at the National Gallery of Art
First shown in 2013, The Birmingham Project has since been mounted in a number of variously scaled permutations and venues across the country. Recently, the National Gallery acquired four of the diptychs, along with a related 11-minute video, and is now exhibiting them in a modest but moving two-room show (in the Gallery’s West Wing through March 24, 2019). Roughly life-sized in scale, the eight figures seem to gaze at us in a remarkable condensation of appraisal, reflection, and a simple bearing of witness to a tortured local history.
“I wanted,” Bey has said, “to give tangible and palpable physical presence to the young people martyred that day.” The works certainly do that. But, exhibited in D.C. at this moment, and only a few years after a deadly attack on an African-American church in South Carolina, they inevitably do something else, as well. As Kara Fiedorek, who curated the show, noted, they also pose “the question of how much has or has not changed.” – Kerr Houston
6. Still Happening in 2018: Joyce J. Scott at Goya Contemporary
The work of MacArthur Genius Joyce J. Scott, whose 40+ year career has engaged benign crafting traditions to bring attention to the persistence of brutality against women, children, and men of color, is distinctly disturbing, offering stark depictions of violence which are haunting yet somehow beautiful. As the title of her latest exhibition suggests, violence against those who have historically been marginalized and disrespected, devalued and forgotten, bought and sold, and touched without consent continues. The violations Scott has tackled throughout her career are as contemporary as they are pandemic: depiction of colonization, sex trafficking, unjustified murders, kidnapping, and child abuse recur in this exhibition of new and timeless visceral works. – Angela N. Carroll
7. Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things at the BMA
Hassinger’s exhibition at the BMA, curated by Kristen Hileman, features many of the same works in the smaller A+P space and lays it out expansively, a luxurious retrospective that features performances, drawings, video, and the large sculptural installations made of the New York Times newspaper, rope, wire, and plastic bags that the artist has become widely known for. Hassinger cites Hileman’s interest, and the opportunities that were generated after the original A+P show, as the impetus for her recent projects. However, one can argue that Hassinger’s presence at the BMA also functions as validation for its recent claims of changes to curatorial and acquisition policies in the past year as well, including the controversial announcement of the deaccessioning of seven works by historically vetted White male artists in order to buy art by women and artists of color — including some based in Baltimore. – Cara Ober
8. The Thing is Close: Jackie Milad and Cindy Cheng at School 33 Art Center
The Thing is Close exhibits the pairing of prolific Baltimore-based artists Cindy Cheng and Jackie Milad. Cheng creates complex sculptural constructions and installations that draw reference from the carefully choreographed rooms of her parents’ house in Hong Kong. Jackie Milad’s works on paper present the complexities of identity-making for people of mixed-race and ethnic backgrounds. Her work constructs a new visual language—a mash-up of actual and invented symbols associated with her Egyptian and Honduran immigrant background and family history.
This is a powerhouse show just bursting with color, texture, energy, and a certain feminine weirdness. There’s a sense of humor and a lithe beauty coiled up in both Milad’s and Cheng’s constructions, and also a sense of destructive natural forces. These sculptures and works on paper are flirtatious and ballsy; they dare you, just a little bit, to fall in love with them. When you move in for a closer look, they flip your expectations and poke you in the eye, but in the nicest way. – Cara Ober
9. Unseen: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day at the National Portrait Gallery
Although it’s described as one exhibition with one title, Unseen functions more like two solo shows, since the work of the two artists are not placed in proximity, but installed in separate, side-by-side galleries. It’s impossible to view them at the same time, which is fine visually, but does not create an opportunity for much cross-pollination to occur.
Theoretically, Kaphar and Gonzales-Day balance out a vital conversation about America’s underrepresented people — each through expertly designed means. However, Kaphar’s images immediately trigger emotions while Gonzales-Day’s require gradual and intellectual processing. Kaphar’s work is a forest fire, while Gonzales-Day’s is a slow burn. In both cases, the work is strong but the timing seems off; the viewer to forced to process each exhibition through exclusive modes that encourage focusing on just one or the other. – Cara Ober
10. Art of Asia at The Walters Art Museum
While viewing Art of Asia, it becomes clear that the archetype of the female creator-destructor is centuries old, as long as you’re looking closely and in the right places. While Western art history presents empowered, sexually liberated, and creative women as an anomaly, Eastern religions based in India, Nepal, and Tibet have long recognized the obvious dynamism of women as multi-faceted and contradictory goddesses and depicted them as such. Although there are plenty of male dieties represented in this show of sculpture, prints, books, and devotional objects, I was drawn immediately to several prominently placed images of Devi, the goddess whose force is believed to animate all living things and aspects of the natural and generative world—including destruction, reproduction, and copulation. – Cara Ober
Honorable Mentions of 2018:
A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday Flag by Dread Scott on North Avenue in Baltimore
From 1920 through 1938, the NAACP used to hang a flag outside their New York headquarters the day after someone was lynched. It read “A Man Was Lynched Today” in graphic white letters on a black background and was part of an ongoing public campaign to draw attention to the reality of the widespread terrorism of black people in America. In 2015, artist Dread Scott made the artwork A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday in response to the murder of Walter Scott, whose shooting by a policeman as he fled was captured on video and shared widely.
The banner looks exactly like the flag that the NAACP flew originally, except for the addition of two words: “by police.” The artwork has been hung in a number of different exhibitions, but early on was shown outside the For Freedoms exhibition organized by Hank Willis Thomas at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery on July 7, 2016 where it received significant positive and negative national attention.
Since that time, Scott’s banner has been shown in other iterations and exhibitions, including a prominent inclusion in An Incomplete History of Protest at The Whitney Museum. And now, it will be on display publicly in Baltimore, a project organized by ArtSite Old Goucher, led by Kelly Cross, and produced by KADIST via Joseph del Pesco, the International Director of KADIST who is now based in Baltimore. This is this organization’s second public art project, and it’s no less political than its first: the installation of Zoe Leonard’s I Want A President on the side of a rowhouse in the Old Goucher neighborhood. – Joseph del Pesco
A Big Toe Touches A Green Tomato: Roxana Azar and Ginevra Shay at Resort
There’s something innately tender that drifts through the current exhibition A Big Toe Touches A Green Tomato at Baltimore’s newest curatorial platform, Resort. The exhibition functions as a collaboration between artists Roxana Azar and Ginevra Shay and proposes a way of belonging to the world that is at once mindful and attentive. Together the artists speak to the passage of time and the inevitability of change alongside gentle demonstrations of self-preservation. The title, too, intimates the sometimes messy, sometimes beautiful mapping of human experience onto natural rhythms. One might cite the title more fully within the text from which it belongs, one jointly conceived by the artists: “Here heaviness dissolves,” it concludes, “a big toe touches a green tomato.” – Joseph Shaikewitz
Ronald Jackson’s Profiles of Color III: Fabric, Face and Form at Galerie Myrtis
Profiles of Color III: Fabric, Face, & Form, Ronald Jackson’s latest collection currently exhibited at Galerie Myrtis, references Arkansas rural culture and violent racist history, the fantastical elements of Magical Realism and the emotional and psychological tropes of Romanticism to offer a stunning appraisal of Black aesthetics. Floral and geometric prints and vibrant fabrics are harmoniously incorporated in large expressive oil paintings. Masked and fashion forward subjects confront your gaze, peer into the heart of the matter with unabashed directness, as if they were proclaiming, “You will see me and know that I am beautiful, powerful, and worthy of representation.” The collection is breathtaking, incredibly inspiring, and exquisitely executed. – Angela N. Carroll
Alex Ebstein and Leah Guadagnoli: Cut, Copy, Paste: It’s Not What You Think at Terrault Contemporary
There is something to be said for an object that can exist in two phases at once, especially those whose materiality is associated with common and sometimes religious performative acts. This polymorphic potential steps up to another level in the two person show at Terrault Contemporary entitled Cut, Copy, Paste: It’s Not What You Think.
Artists Alex Ebstein and Leah Guadagnoli upend the traditional uses of industrial and everyday materials to bring a lightness and humor to various abstract styles while also managing to be critical of the politeness of traditional abstract visual communication. The show’s penchant for pulling disparate elements together is indicative of an investigative sense that builds ambiguity into the objects and holds fast to the motto: “It’s not what you think.” – Malcolm Lomax