After a decade of wandering from venue to venue, the Contemporary Museum has found a home.
For 10 years, the Baltimore institution has been known -- to the extent that it has been known at all -- as what director Gary Sangster calls a "mobile museum, a museum without walls," mounting exhibitions in a variety of borrowed spaces such as the BT Alex. Brown Building, the Druid Hill Park Conservatory and Canton National Bank. Its projects have appeared on the ether of the Internet and amid the exhaust of a Greyhound bus terminal. Even the Baltimore Museum of Art has been temporarily invaded, with special wall labels affixed next to selected items from its permanent collection, courtesy of the Contemporary.
But for many locals, the question has always been: "Who is this masked museum?"
"We've always had a bit of an identity problem," admits Sangster, noting with irony that the Contemporary is "more famous in New York than in Baltimore." By way of example, he cites "Mining the Museum," its well-received 1992 show produced in partnership with the Maryland Historical Society. In that collaboration, the Contemporary Museum enlisted artist Fred Wilson to redesign several floors of the MHS's collection. Wilson chose to highlight issues of African American history with ironic juxtapositions of such items as silver cutlery next to leg irons or a finely wrought living-room chair next to a whipping post.
"With that provocative installation, we fundamentally changed the way the institution thought of itself," says Sangster, explaining that there is to this day a scaled-down version of "Mining" on view in the MHS galleries. "But if you ask them, most people in Baltimore will tell you they think the Maryland Historical Society did `Mining the Museum.' "
He's currently hoping to put that reputation for invisibility behind his organization as the Contemporary Museum takes up permanent residence in what Sangster calls its "bulletproof" new downtown digs, a white-walled, high-ceilinged gallery on the first floor of the very substantial Home Mutual Life Building in the heart of the Mount Vernon cultural district, hard by not only its onetime partners at the Maryland Historical Society but another former collaborator. In 1996, the nearby Walters Art Gallery opened its vaults to an examination of the parallels between the work of contemporary artists and that of centuries-dead painters, with the Contemporary Museum show "Going for Baroque."
The new space -- essentially one large room and two smaller side compartments, all of which together are about as large as a commercial Manhattan gallery -- is being inaugurated with an ambitious debut show called "Impact: Revealing Sources for Contemporary Art."
It's a diverse and somewhat diffuse look at art of the last 40 years or so, represented by works of photography, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, musical composition, video and performance -- but with virtually no painting. Although the intention is to show streams of interconnectivity between artists and media -- the "Impact" of the title refers more to the pinball-like effect one creative force has on another than to the impression this art makes on its audience -- the abiding sense one is left with is of an art devoid of the human hand.
At first glance, as you take in the initial "Impact," the room as a whole feels pale, washed out even. Everything looks white, overexposed, as drained of color as a corpse.
There are rare exceptions: some of Bill Viola's more kaleidoscopic video passages, a garish Bruce Nauman lithograph of a clown making a bowel movement, a cast of a worn shoe in red wax by the normally grotesque Robert Gober. But most of the works in the show -- including color photographs by Laurie Anderson, Dan Graham, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ana Mendieta, Gerhard Richter (who took a picture of one of his own photorealistic paintings!) and Lorna Simpson -- look overwhelmingly gray. Even Andy Warhol contributes not one of his splashy polychrome portraits but an ashen silkscreen of Jackie Kennedy that looks like it was left out in the sun too long.
Mind you, there's nothing wrong with that. Some of the work here -- such as John Cage's two sotto voce drawings from 1990 made with only the subtlest touches of watercolor and smoke -- is gorgeous.
But where is the shouting we've been hearing over the last half century of contemporary art? In a show whose title refers more to the whispery influence artists have on each other than to the eclat of such loudmouthed sensations as Jeff Koons and Kenny Scharf, such bombastic "Impact" is apparently unwelcome. Even Rebecca Horn's noisy "Drawing Machine," in which a motorized hammer strikes repeatedly at a bundle of charcoal sticks, creating a dusty black residue on the goose's egg positioned below it, is unobstreperous in its nose-thumbing.
Yet its location on a kind of "drawing wall," alongside works on paper by Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse and photo documentation from the 1970s performances by Marina Abramovic, (who etched designs in her own skin with knives) is utterly appropriate -- in an academic sort of way. Where, though, is mention of the work of Ron Athey, an HIV-positive artist in the news in recent years for doing a similar sort of thing?
So "Impact" is anything but encyclopedic or a measure of the zeitgeist. Its offering by the hot Ann Hamilton, for instance, most recently in the Venice Biennial with a room-sized installation involving a wall of Braille text over which powdered pigment gently fell, is the uncharacteristic "Untitled (Book Ball)," a wad of text excised line by line from the pages of a book. Horn's "Drawing Machine" seems to have more in common with Hamilton's latest project.
Which is, I suppose, exactly "Impact's" point. Everyone's related in a six-degrees-of-Francis-Bacon kind of way.
On a wall that curator Adam Lerner calls the "grandfather wall," you'll find such mid-century movers and shakers as Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois, along with works by the aforementioned Cage and Warhol. What each of them has to do with the others may not immediately be clear, although the Contemporary has helpfully assembled thick three-ring binders filled with essays and biographies for those seeking further enlightenment.
And maybe that's what's ultimately troubling about this otherwise fine first show in the onetime renegade's permanent new space -- not the lack of thematic focus or the dearth of humanity in the art but the fact that the new and improved Contemporary Museum, with its crash course in contemporary art, feels less like a gallery than a classroom.
"The experience of art," says Sangster, "is itself an education."
Agreed. But does that experience necessarily have to smell so . . . scholastic?
IMPACT: REVEALING SOURCES FOR CONTEMPORARY ART -- Through Jan. 3, 2000, at the Contemporary Museum, 100 West Centre St., Baltimore. 410/783-5720. Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays; Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5. Free (suggested donation).
A variety of lectures and public programs is planned in conjunction with "Impact." For more information, call 410/783-5720.