By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, May 16, 2010; E03
A pregnant woman yells at her son before he's even born. Street kids stand in succession on a corner for an hour at a time, static as the rest of the world rushes by.
At their best, New York artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry turn out works with a tremendous and stirring directness. The couple -- joined in art and life -- are getting their first mid-career survey, titled "Bearing Witness," at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and at six other downtown art venues. The idea for the retrospective came from a curatorial seminar at the Maryland Institute College of Art, whose 20 or so students took on most of the exhibition's demands.
The survey's best moment comes in the Contemporary Museum, in that 2004 video of the angry mom-to-be. Titled "Otis," after the unborn child at its center, the three-minute video shows the model-gorgeous Tarry, a black woman in white yoga pants and white halter, running her hands over the bare flesh of her huge belly. And then, at intervals, she launches into a standard set of maternal reprimands: "Look at what you did!," "What did I say?," "You will listen to me because I am your mother." Those are the angry cliches all parents fall into, but some of Tarry's other exclamations, just as standard, are signs of parental dysfunction: "You're so stupid. Why are you so [expletive] stupid?," "You want to cry? I'll give you something to cry about."
To hear a mother say such things to a fetus is harrowing. You realize that our culture's stereotypes of contempt are right there in the wings, waiting to come down on any child's head. On the other hand, the tender moments of caressing in this video, coupled with the sheer elegance and beauty of its mother, make you think that maybe you're watching a kind of exorcism of parental rage, or an inoculation against it. Get those angry thoughts and feelings out of the way before little Otis (or Kate or Jamal or Blake) is even born, and maybe they won't descend on him when he actually does wrong.
More than anything, "Otis" is the elegantly simple distillation of a real-world situation. It's got complexities, but they are left for viewers to work through, as in a cryptic scene by Rembrandt or Manet.
That's what makes "Otis" more successful than some other works by McCallum and Tarry. Rather than complex, those other works sometimes read as ornate -- two closely related concepts that tend to yield almost opposite effects.
A 2006 video called "Cut," being projected at the Contemporary Museum, still tends toward the simple-but-complex: The two artists crew-cut each other's hair -- but slowly, painfully, with a straight razor.
The most recent piece in the survey, also presented at the Contemporary, is an ornate 4 1/2 -minute, three-screen video called "Evenly Yoked," shot in the perfectly preserved Victorian interiors of the Engineers Club in Baltimore. There are scenes of McCallum (who is white) and Tarry facing each other across a double-sided makeup mirror: He puts on blackface, and she goes white as they practice trading races. Other disconnected scenes show her dressed as a slave girl, or a 19th-century gentlewoman or 1990s bride. McCallum appears and interacts with her as a Confederate soldier, as a 19th-century dandy or as a contemporary groom.
Production values are impressive, and some of the subject matter seems worth tending to. Overall, however, the piece has a fractured surrealism that makes it feel like the video version of your bedmate waking up to tell you a dream.
Ornate: Curlicues to revel in and marvel at. Complex: Unexpected depths to sink into. In this survey, viewers can decide for themselves which side each piece falls on. Baltimore's Phoenix Shot Tower, built in 1828 to manufacture ammunition, hosts a 1996 piece credited to McCallum alone, for which he melted down guns and turned them into manhole covers. The nearby Carroll Mansion presents 104 mug shots of 1950s civil rights protesters, which the artists have enlarged into oil paintings. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of black history has an installation themed around Billie Holiday. Maryland Art Place is displaying eight pieces, including a three-screen video projection of samples of news footage -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, Klan rallies, floods -- shown in the 1960s on a TV station in Georgia. The Walters Art Museum, filled with its share of classic images of Mary and the infant Christ, now also hosts seven photos of unwed mothers and their babies, inkjet-printed onto silk panels six feet tall by almost five wide.
Up the hill at the Maryland Institute College of Art itself, its components of the McCallum and Tarry project get under way only on May 25, after graduation. They will include that street-kid project called "Civic Endurance," which Washingtonians got to admire back in 2003 when it was exhibited at Conner Contemporary Art. It documents a 25-hour performance in which 26 disheveled young people took turns standing for about an hour each on the same street corner in Seattle. In the finished time-lapse video, which rushes by in under two hours, we see day give way to night while all the busy people in a modern city barely register as foggy ghosts. And in the midst of them, as a fixed fact, stands that succession of homeless youths.
Back in 2003, my colleague Michael O'Sullivan described the piece as "richly disturbing art." McCallum and Tarry have only rarely equaled it since.
Works by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry run through July 31 at seven Baltimore venues, including the exhibition's headquarters at the Contemporary Museum. Call 410-783-5720 or visit http://www.contemporary.org.