Impressive Art Works at Baltic Artists’ Award 2017

Get a grip … work by Toni Schmale on show at Baltic, Gateshead. Photograph: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

After last year’s successful Hepworth sculpture prize in Wakefield, Gateshead’s Baltic asked four artists to choose candidates for an innovative new prize of its own. The selectors – Monica Bonvicini, Lorna Simpson, Pedro Cabrita Reis andMike Nelson – have each nominated a single artist, who receives £25,000 for the production of work, plus a £5,000 fee to show something new in the gallery.

Arrested danger … Jose Dávila’s I-beam work. Photograph: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

At the front of the top-floor gallery, Mexican sculptor Jose Dávila shows a single work. A taut cable connects steel I-beams, two large sandstone boulders, and a red helium balloon. These grounded, suspended, dangling and floating elements don’t so much dance in space as give the impression of danger arrested. One boulder hovers like a cloud over the balloon, the space between them full of tension. I’m tense, too: pop the big red balloon and you imagine everything will come crashing down.

This, of course, is a piece of theater. The illusion is destroyed by a little wedge that the gallery has insisted Dávila place under the foot of the tilted steel beam that angles up from the floor. It is only a little thing, put there to stabilize the beam and prevent it swaying, but the wedge effectively wrecks the illusion of precarious equilibrium on which The Weaker Has Conquered the Stronger depends. I wonder, for a moment, whether the artist had been thinking of critic Michael Fried’s early objections to minimalism, which he denounced for its theatricality.

Fun … Eric N Mack’s fabric arrangements. Photograph: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

Beyond Davila’s balletic conceit, Eric N Mack’s various arrangements are fun: tent covers, paint-soiled and patterned fabric, clothing, clothes rails, a large garden parasol, chains, an aluminium stepladder, and – in one work – a cowboy hat. A live model, draped in raggedy fabrics, wanders between Mack’s sculptures. I think of windblown yurts, washing lines, rag-picker’s yards, kid’s make-believe houses, poverty-chic street fashion, and plenty of art I’ve seen before, from Robert Rauschenberg to Jessica Stockholder.

This in itself is fine, but I’m left wanting more wildness, more excess, maybe more paint, definitely more life. Selected by American artist Simpson, Mack’s work also takes its cues from street life (Colombia-born Mack lives in New York) and fashion, as well as the textures of the everyday. I wish his art were less polite.

Chosen by Bonvicini, who showed at Baltic last winter, Toni Schmale’s art resembles Bonvicini’s own. Schmale’s objects are mostly black, slightly sinister and threatening, and cousins to industrial presses, gym equipment (she is a former athlete), and (following Bonvicini) the hardware you might find in a well-equipped BDSM dungeon. There’s also something fetishistic in her list of materials: “sandblasted, black-finished, oiled steel”, “stainless steel, polished, tempered on 170-degree brass”. Mmm, don’t you just imagine your naked body against all that black, oiled steel? Or, of course, it could just be me, trying to imagine a use for her art, to make it more fun for myself.

My biggest problems are with Shen Xin’s vastly overcomplicated, four-channel video installation. There are lovely moments in the London-based Chinese artist’s work – in particular, a conversation between a younger woman and her older meditation teacher – but also a great deal of confusion, and what I regard as a meretricious use of some ofShen’s material – including old footage of Jan O’Herne, a devout Catholic girl brought up in the former Dutch East Indies who describes being forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” by the invading Japanese army in 1944.

Touching scene … a moment in Shen Xin’s video installation. Photograph: Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

The parallel, broken narratives of Shen’s Provocation of the Nightingale don’t cohere. You have to hop from screen to screen and try to find your way through it all. DNA-testing and Buddhism, corrupt monks and missionaries are also in there somewhere.

The Baltic artists’ prize does not make for a satisfying exhibition. The four selected artists have little in common. Putting the work of the four selectors together in a group show wouldn’t make sense, either. People love prizes, I suppose. There is no overall winner, though to pep things up the gallery’s audience can pick a favorite. This, apparently, “will inform” a further commission “enabling a deeper engagement between one of the artists and local communities in Gateshead”, to be announced next year. This is all a bit opaque. I wish it worked.