Walking into The Ground, the newest exhibit from Baltimore’s nomadic modern art museum The Contemporary, you can’t help but marvel at what surrounds you.
First, it’s the location—the Hutzler Brothers Palace Building on Howard Street, which held the first department store of its kind in Baltimore. As you enter through the curved, Art Deco doorway, you can feel the magnitude of what came before.
What greets you next is stylistically different, but also impressive. Richmond and New York-based artist Michael Jones McKean has created a two-story sculpture, which illuminates the center of the room and is made up of portals that together work as a set of display windows (an obvious suggestion that McKean is well aware of where he is). Each portion is lit from above, with varied color and brightness, and many objects are set away from the walls.
In the content of these portals, McKean provides us with a sophisticated, contemplative exploration on the permanence of place, allowing us to consider what came before and what is to come. Drawing together the original, the fabricated, the technological, and the geological, McKean challenges us to go beneath our surface understanding of a location and consider that our engagement with it is just a blip in its history.
On the front side of the sculpture, McKean has juxtaposed references to the origins of civilization with allusions to its advancements. The heads of what the artists has alluded to are those of a futuristic cult (or, judging from their skin tone and body paint, what could be our indigenous forbearers) hang below busts of ancestors of a different ilk—those found in museum collections, like Michelangelo’s David, a Buddha, and an African goddess.
The individual portals lead to a center display that houses the largest, and one of the most visually pleasing, portions of The Ground. There, a delicately leaved tree serenely petrified in white paint stands on a white floor, where tiles have been pulled up to reveal what could be the outlines of fossils. One of the tree’s limbs has strikingly been magnified, becoming circular instead of linear, and containing smaller circles that suggest McKean is giving us a microscopic view of one of its cells. He also seems to be reminding us of life’s beginnings, and that no matter how it appears, we return to the earth.
The back portion of McKean’s sculpture has less continuity than the front, but is just as thought provoking. On one side, an immersive cave—complete with mist—will have you creeping closer and closer to experience its depths. But there, tucked in the corner, is a vase of hot-house flowers, behind glass as if in a fridge at a florist’s shop—“you aren’t where you think you are,” it seems to be saying. Above, a variety of items, from a suitcase to a manta ray, have been preserved in white paint—perhaps alluding to a display in a museum of the future.
The Ground—which is on view until May 19—succeeds in its accessibility. It is visually pleasing both in parts or as a whole, and at the opening last Saturday, visitors were consistently stepping in closer or backing farther away to take in the work’s stunning detail (McKean provided a material sheet for viewers that includes more than 300 objects, including meteorite fragments, a variety of minerals, and aquatic life). At night, the sculpture shines brightly through Hutzler’s plate-glass windows, which will hopefully serve to draw in visitors who perhaps would not have access to such an exhibit.
The work also succeeds in that it breathes life into one of Baltimore’s treasured buildings, which has been vacant since Hutzler’s closed nearly 30 years ago. The packed opening had an exciting energy, and you could hear people murmuring about how wonderful that it was opened up again. Doreen Bolger, director emeritus of the Baltimore Museum of Art, even remarked when she walked in that, “it should always be open and filled with art.” We couldn’t agree more.