A Time in Space: On Move, Maneuver. Track And Traipse at School 33

Stephanie Imbeau "Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)" (Installation view)
Stephanie Imbeau “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” (Installation view)

It’s hard to miss Stephanie Imbeau’s “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” the moment you enter School 33’s main gallery. The sculpture looks like a rainbow-colored parasol parade, kinda like the one seen in the title sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that caterpillar-crawled across the wall, slinky flipped toward the floor, and sprang up to the ceiling. And at first encounter it’s difficult to wrap the brain around, at first glance recalling the instant smile provoked by Franz West’s “The Ego and the Id” that was created for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s To Build a House You Start With the Roof retrospective in 2008.

This insouciant vibe is a nice calibration for taking in Move, Maneuver. Track And Traipse, the group show curated by Karyn Miller, the director of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center. The work here is sneaky plunge into the metaphysical. The four artists—Sonja Hinrichsen, Imbeau, Hiroshi Jacobs, and Alessandra Torres—take different approaches to navigating and inhabiting physical space. The work feels strangely novel, as if artists focusing on the IRL realm is some kind of throwback. Imbeau, Jacobs, Torres, and curator Miller talk about the work and exhibition at a panel discussion at School 33, May 30, at 2 p.m.

Jacobs’ “Inside/Out” embraces the conceptual divide packed into that “IRL” shorthand used to separate directly observed space from the virtual. The installation engulfs the smaller gallery off the main room, and it completely hijacks the space’s geometry. Imagine two king-sized platform bed frames, wrapped in lavender stretch fabric, that have been distorted from ordinary rectangles into irregular polygons, one shoved flush into the corner of the room on the floor, the other acting like a drop-ceiling from above. Resting on the lower one shape is another geometric hunk of something or other, like a dodecahedron after an extreme makeover. The room is kept at low light, and entering it feels like walking into the next generation Star Trek‘s holodeck as it’s in the process of rendering that cartoon-inspired house in the Joe Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a place where cotton-candy colors and skewed perspectives were visually menacing.

Jacobs describes the installation as what the “act of finger-pinch zooming on your phone would look like as a physical space” on his web site, which highlights why the piece feels so uncomfortably banal. It’s an attempt at translating the trivial action on a digital interface into three dimensions, where we don’t have too many visual referents for it outside, say, the aforementioned sci-fi and speculative fiction comparisons above. Torres’ “Continuous Movement: Instructional Dance Machine, Prototype #2” shares that sense of the familiar unfamiliarity. The piece is a pair of curved steel rods elevated to human torso height; two black silk fans are attached to the curved rods, around which they appear to be able to move. A nearby set of photographs shows Torres demonstrating how the machine functions on a different prototype, the fans moved along the rods by hand.

The motion draws arcs along which hands and arms might move while dancing, though the metal guides—the machine—defines the space in which the choreography takes place. During her three year residency at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson Theater, Torres experimented with a variety of performances and sculptures that examined how the body and/or objects occupy space. And the notion of a “dance machine” as an apparatus for occupying space is droll; Torres’ sculpture isn’t a game machine like Dance Dance Revolution; it’s a physical corral, a way of restricting movement. Dance is one of many ways exploring space corporeally, as temporally fugitive as music but tactile and visible. Torres’ three wall-mounted fans from her “Bomba Y Plena” installation make ephemeral dance architectural, disrupting movement around the walls where they’re installed. That they’re about waist-high and evoke the sight of a dancer’s twirling skirt cheekily freezes a visual memory that flits by in the briefest of moments.

Hinrichsen’s “Snow Drawings – Eychauda France” digital prints treat time’s slipperiness in a more calmly reflective way. For her snow drawings project Hinrichsen uses snowshoes to walk crop-circle like connected swirls into the landscape. Scale is provided in the photos by houses, ski lifts, and clusters of trees; Hinrichsen is covering large, what look like football-field sized parcels of land. The photos are gorgeously serene: bright white surfaces with delightful curlicues carved into them. The longer you look, though, the more you realize how fleeting the sight you’re drinking in is. The labor involved is considerable—she’s visualizing the path taken by one human—and nature itself probably deleted the scene shortly after the image was documented.

Hinrichsen’s photos become quietly profound memento mori, visual evidence of something that once was but now isn’t. These particular reminders of the physical world’s transience are achieved through a build up of the artist’s physical movement through time and space. With accumulation in mind, take another look at Imbeau’s irreverent “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore).” The Brooklyn-based artist has been using lost and found umbrellas to make her rain cloud sculpture/installations for a number of years now, and the bric-a-brac qualities of the materials gives the them an improvisational verve. But just look at all those umbrellas. How many are forgotten in a closet right now, or tossed underneath a car seat, or stashed behind an office door? How many are necessity purchases while on the go and then immediately forgotten? Where are they all made? Where do they all eventually end up?

Such questions causes the brain to rifle through consciousness’ card catalog looking for something to compare “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” outside the pun suggested by the title; mine settled on the nests of birds and insects who construct homes on the sheer faces of cliffs and buildings with scrounged materials, the improvised housing of shantytowns, the dumpster-dived dwellings of transitional populations. One human’s hoarding could be another’s home. Patiently, Imbeau’s work quietly evolved in the brain, and this ridiculous eruption of color and shape that assault the eyes transform into something more familiar, more deliberate, and more human.

Photo credit: Kim Llerena

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On wandering into memory’s weeds thanks to one of Graham Coreil-Allan’s New Public Sites walking tours

About 140 yards separates the intersection of West Franklin Street from West Mulberry Street along North Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore, basically a city block—roughly the same distance between the Lost City Diner and the Station North Chicken Box along Charles Street. Standing on the north side of the West Baltimore intersection, atop a Jersey wall, it certainly doesn’t look that far away. I, along with some 40 other people, line this side of the street on the afternoon of April 24, taking part in a walking tour led by Graham Coreil-Allen as part of his SiteLines exhibit, on view through may 15 at the Current Gallery. Coreil-Allen, dressed in the plain-front slacks, teal polo shirt, sports jacket, and baseball cap of a tour guide, has led us from the gallery to this spot as part of the afternoon’s pedestrian adventure. He carried a megaphone with him, the requisite prop of a tour guide, which he genuinely needed at the moment. Overhead, police and television news helicopters hovered not too far away from us, near the Gilmor Homes housing project where people were gathering for the afternoon’s march to City Hall to protest the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Many of us would join that march when we connected to it on Greene Street. But first, we had to get to cross the street, four lanes of divided high-speed traffic colloquially known as the “Highway to Nowhere.”

Coreil-Allen calls himself a “public artist,” and his New Public Sites project combines elements of urban planning, architecture, and radical geography, with the guided tour model of the service economy to examine the everyday aspects of the urban environment: streets, buildings, embankments, developments, etc. Though he’s been working on this project and leading his tours for a few years–read his 2010 thesis (PDF) for a good introduction–this was my first time to go on one of his strolls. And I’m doing it on the same day that, by mainstream news narratives, that peaceful protests first turned violent.

Now, it’s incidental that this Coreil-Allen-led tour and his gallery show happened at the same time as the April 24 Freddie Gray march; that said, what his project and tour offers is a reminder that the conditions that created the world into which Freddie Gray was born, and the root causes that primed the events gripped our city in the time since that march, were not independent. The present state of inequality was manufactured and developed by people and policies of the city, state, and country.

The coincidence of the New Sites tour and the city’s protests and ensuing uprising caused Coreil-Allen to improvise his programming a bit; he postponed last weekend’s event and today’s, the Wandering Shards of Specter Riches walking tour, which starts at 2 p.m. from Current, is in some ways a response to “recent events,” which I’m placing in quotes because there’s no way to talk about what is gripping our city right now, and who is involved, in language that isn’t loaded. We’re presently occupying a point where we’re relooking and re-thinking about where we live, and committing words into ideas about the matter is a partisan act.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the content of the tour I participated in here, nor am I’m going to elaborate on his performance as the tour guide—and it is part performance piece, as slyly considered as Andrea Fraser’s “Museum Highlights”. Not because I’m uninterested in what he has to say about the various histories of development in/around downtown West Baltimore, eras about which I knew a healthy amount already just from being a local writer/citizen. And not because I didn’t appreciate the entire experience—I did, and in what has grown in my mind as a significant compliment is the fact that halfway through the tour, as Coreil-Allen pointed out Federal warning signs and talked about why Jersey walls were created and traced the history of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the first point of comparison that popped into my mind was the late local creative worker Peter Zahorecz’ syringe stencil project from the 1990s, one of those quietly profound artistic feats that get you to look at the everyday world you encounter with new eyes.

That interest in the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the ordinary struck me here: the curiosity with which Coreil-Allen approaches his subject matter. His application of an artist/architect’s eye to the socioeconomic history of place compliments a number of politically minded and publically engaged artists and art collectives of the past 30-plus years (at least), and Baltimore has witnessed a fair amount of that activity. Most recently, the Contemporary under Irene Hoffman, from 2006-2010, was especially interested in experimenting with presenting this hybrid variety of work.

And this is one of those moment where I become the old guy shaking a fist at clouds: Coreil-Allen’s tour also made me recall those shows and similarly inquisitive projects like the Cram Sessions Chris Gilbert curated when he was the contemporary art curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which asked questions about the role of artists and museums in the communities in which they reside. I’m thinking about the Contemporary’s Headquarters: Investigating the creation of the ghetto and the prison industrial complex, The Reverse Ark: In the Wake, and Participation Nation, exhibitions that never seemed to spark much substantive local thinking or engagement. That’s not a knock: politically engaged art, installations, and projects are as difficult to do well as run a successful political campaign or change-producing community organizing effort. Failure is always a possibility. But in looking over what writing about these projects I could find online, the quality of the discussion was a bit tepid: they were often met with a mix of curiosity and apathy, as if the intersection of creative labor and real world issues was insufficient to produce thoughtful dialog.

And I bring that up here because “recent events” has so many of us, for good reason, thinking about the What We Do given the All That Has Happened. Yes, that’s the anxiety of comfortable, but that’s OK. All conversations have to start somewhere. So let’s wonder aloud about what good an art critic, criticism, or art in general is in a city on fire. And let’s make an effort not to forget that when we’re doing criticism and creative labor when the city’s not.