It's not often that new paintings by an old man seem so exploratory, but the new landscape paintings that 79-year-old Eugene Leake is showing at the Grimaldis Gallery are alive in their every brushstroke.
Although Leake has been an artist for a long time, much of his energy went into his administrative duties as president of the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1961 to 1974. Upon retiring from the school post, he put his full energies into painting again. In a series of increasingly strong exhibits at the Grimaldis Gallery, Leake has liberated his brushstroke and experimented more and more as he goes along.
When approaching a landscape subject, he looks directly to Monkton, not Manhattan, for his inspiration. Rather than worrying over the latest "-isms" in New York, he immerses himself in the countryside north of Baltimore. If Monkton is his world, why, he will show it in a realistic manner that is also infused with the feeling of that humble local landscape.
Leake's paintings have become more atmospheric and abstract in recent years, a tendency he refers to in an artist's statement for the current show. He writes that he's interested in capturing the changing effects of light and weather, and that he paints directly from nature and often in a single session. That some canvases are more effective than others is inevitable when an artist responds so immediately to nature, but the level of achievement is high here. His stylistic experiments usually pay off.
An especially keen sense of immediate response comes through in his painting "Windy Sky." True to the weather conditions of a turbulent day, he paints a dense blue sky crossed by grayish-white clouds. The sky fills most of the canvas, because it's what this painting is all about. However, the ground in its own way responds to the fast-moving clouds above. The trees are painted in various shades of deep green and lighter green, following through on the light conditions mandated by the scurrying clouds overhead.
That canvas is actually rather atypical of this exhibit. More often, as in "Cool Gray Sunrise" and "Morning Fog With Light Sky," Leake sets up outdoors at an early hour and tries to capture that quiet merging of sky and ground in the mist.
As the weather changes -- from misty morning to windy day, from winter snow to summer greenery -- Leake's brushstrokes change, too. If the mist-laden canvases usually rely on thinly applied paint, there are other paintings that call attention to the thickness of paint. Leake's "Harford Creamery Winter Field," for instance, has a tan and white field you'd need boots to walk through and a blue and white sky that seems no less solid than the ground. The effect is not deadening, however. Simply consider another painting, "Snow Field," in which the chalky density makes you feel just how quiet and desolate a field can be in winter.
While experimenting with various shades and densities of whiteness in such paintings, Leake is also making other paintings in which darkness is the aesthetic challenge he sets up for himself. In "Madonna House -- Night" and "Jarrettsville Night," there is a darkness that goes beyond simple nocturnal realism and becomes a deep darkness of the sort that can swallow you up. And yet the houses and telephone poles depicted in these paintings have more than enough firm presence to survive the night.
In some of Leake's woodsy subjects, this affinity for a darker palette is reminiscent of the 19th century French painter Gustave Courbet. The tangle of trees in "Black Light" is so thick that only shreds of sky peek through at the top of the canvas.
Eugene Leake is showing new paintings at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St., through Oct. 27. For details, call 539-1080.