Salvador Bru's paintings, at the C. Grimaldis Morton Street gallery (through April 13), look in some ways as if they could have been painted in the 1940s, when surrealism contributed to the birth of abstract expressionism.
The biomorphic shapes that wander across paintings such as the huge (7 1/2 -by-30 feet) "Baltimore Triptych" are reminiscent of surrealism. One can think of Gorky, and here and there of Tanguy. These mix with other elements, some of which are specific enough to be named: a pyramid, for instance, which to Bru stands for knowledge or God.
But what unifies these works and gives them their presence is their use of paint in abstract ways: the expression of mood and emotion through gesture and color, and the lyrical painterliness of individual passages, which at times become almost separate paintings within the painting, but still relate to the whole.
Bru, a Spanish-born painter who now lives in the Washington area and has a studio in Baltimore, uses a somber palette dominated by grays that wash across the surface, providing not so much a background as a continuum for episodes of color: yellow, purple, orange, blue. These works are about paint as much as they are of paint, and it is refreshing to encounter a painter who clearly loves the use of paint for its own qualities.
His brush stroke is active but not violent or hard; in fact, there's a certain softness to it that gives these works their very painterly quality. There are linear elements, and more and less well-defined shapes and forms, but they look less as if they are abstracted from definite figures or objects than as if they are coalescing from the void.
One can, if one likes, "read" some of these works: i.e., find meaning in individual symbols and even perhaps narrative. It's possible to see a baseball game in the left half of "Baltimore Triptych," and there is overall a sense of movement from left to right. No doubt one could interpret numerous individual elements. Butto do so does this work an injustice, for "Baltimore Triptych" is not about Baltimore, any more than "The Twelve Portraits of Mickey Mouse" (a painting in 12 parts hung in three rows of four) is about Mickey Mouse.
Aside from being about painting itself, these works are most strongly about states of mind -- anguish or fear, desire, confusion and its resolution. There is little of the primal scream about them, however, for a certain intellectual reserve is at work, making them as analytic as they are expressive.
To say that Bru's work recalls an earlier period or earlier artists is not to say that it's old-fashioned.
What saves it from that is the genuineness of Bru's expression. These works don't feel as if they are "in the style of;" they may, inevitably, show influence, but they are independent enough to be able to show it without compromise.
Not all of these works are equal. In particular, the painter is capable of an awkward passage, as if he was unsure about what to do in a certain area and ended up just leaving it. But on the whole, Bru, who has been working quietly in Baltimore for three years, is a real find. Let us see him again.