Washington artist wins $25,000 Sondheim prize; entries on display in Baltimore

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

If you think the officiating at the World Cup was controversial, wait till you see who won the Sondheim Prize.

Work by the seven finalists in the annual art competition -- one of several juried art throw-downs that have sprung up in recent years to hand out cash to area artists -- is on view through Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A second exhibition, featuring work by the contest's 38 semifinalists, is also on display at the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The two shows are worth a day trip, if only to question the growing notion of art as a competitive sport.

It's not an anomaly. Witness the new TV show on Bravo, "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist." (Think "Top Chef," but with paint and papier-mâché.)

But first, congratulations are in order for Ryan Hackett of Washington, winner of the $25,000 purse for a serene 22-minute video of swirling clouds accompanied by whale song, along with two large canvases. Both paintings are nature-themed, blue-and-white abstractions resembling flowers. It's good, if subtle, stuff; and the 34-year-old certainly deserves recognition. (He was also a finalist in last year's competition, named in honor of the late Baltimore arts patrons Janet and Walter Sondheim). But the strength of the art by the runners-up -- not to mention the crowded field of contenders at MICA -- only highlights the ridiculously subjective nature of such judgments.

This year's jury included curators from Chicago and New York, and a Manhattan gallery owner. Why, you might wonder, did they pick Hackett over his fellow finalist Leah Cooper? The Baltimore-based Cooper's site-specific installation, "Iterated, Gallery 4 -- Part A" is just as restrained as Hackett's work, yet arguably more powerful. Working with mirrored tiles, the faintest of pencil marks, white tape and bits of clear plexiglass that she affixes directly to the gallery walls, Cooper doesn't so much draw as she draws our attention to the space itself. Her true medium, as the wall label notes, is light, shadow and "existing site elements." As a result, it's hard to know if the beauty and punch of her installation is what she brought to the room or what was already there.

At MICA, semifinalist Brent Crothers's sculptures have a purity and formal elegance, despite the unorthodox materials they're made of (plumbing pipes, in one case). Maybe what did him in was his sense of humor. Especially in Baltimore, it's hard to look at his egg-shaped sculpture of wrapped string "Don't Give Up" without thinking of that city's other famous icon of twine, the Haussner's Ball of String, an 800-pound monstrosity collected by waitresses at a now-defunct local restaurant.

I'm not saying Crothers should have won. But you might.

See, that's the thing. It's hard say why anyone wins an art contest these days. You don't score points for superb technique (or semifinalist Sebastian Martorana might have won for his carved-marble towels). And you don't draw penalties for obvious fouls. In the contemporary art world, it sometimes pays to get ugly. Witness finalist Matthew Janson's mixed-media sculptures, including one piece called "carrion," which looks like a baby bassinet filled with bloody entrails.

When it comes to art competitions, only one person can take home the big check, but there are many winners. I'm not talking about second and third place. I'm talking about the audience for art that sometimes confirms -- but far more often challenges -- our sense of what's worthwhile.

SONDHEIM ARTSCAPE PRIZE: 2010 FINALISTS Through Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr. (at North Charles and 31st streets), Baltimore. 443-573-1700. http://www.artbma.org. Hours: Open Wednesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: Free. ARTSCAPE AT MICA: 2010 JANET AND WALTER SONDHEIM PRIZE SEMIFINALISTS EXHIBITION Through Sunday in the Decker and Meyerhoff galleries of the Maryland Institute College of Art, 1301 Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore. 410-669-9200. http://www.mica.edu. Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.

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