"Barbara Kassel: Recent Paintings" at the C. Grimaldis Gallery's 523 N.Charles St. space (through June 1) provokes admiration mixed with a nagging sense of unease.
For admiration there is much cause. These meticulously achieved paintings display a total mastery of technical means, the use of considerable symbolism, a deep knowledge of art history, a sensitivity to the state of the world.
They call up the past from the ruins of classical antiquity to the architecture and painting of the Renaissance, and their grainy surfaces are reminiscent of fresco. But what they address is anything but old-fashioned; they deal with both current events and timeless themes.
Among the larger paintings, "Jerusalem" is typical of most in its tripartite form with an interior placed off-center and interrupting an exterior, which the viewer understands to be continuous. Here the exterior represents a night scene of the city walls, broken in places, with campfires in the foreground as if the city were under siege. The interior, based on a 14th century fresco (Kassel explains many of these things in notes on the paintings), contains an altar upon which, from the ashes of a fire, twigs reach toward a light overhead.
Much is suggested here, from the Jews' survival of the Holocaust to the embattled state of modern Israel, but what stands for the specific also connotes the general: the unifying role of art no less than the persistence of war, destruction, rebirth and hope.
Not every painting makes its points so clearly, but those that don't have a pleasing aura of mystery. "The Builder" shows an interior with the tools of an architect, an exterior of the Judaean desert; elements suggest a land settled, and fought over, since antiquity. But the longer one looks at this picture, the more
intentional "mistakes" one finds: Why does the farther support of the porch come down in the wrong place? Why doesn't the railing continue all the way around? Why would there be a porch off the upper part of a room with no way to get onto it? Kassel perhaps makes the point that the world's problems result from the mistakes of those who shape it.
Other works, large and small, provoke reactions from rumination over the artist's themes to delight in her sheer ability: her astonishingly detailed animals, her striking light.
On the other hand, these paintings are disturbingly unmoving. Kassel's earlier rooms, equally unpeopled, projected a haunting sense of some human drama with which, unspecific as it was, one could identify; in their tension and their loneliness there was something universal.
These works possess a dazzling virtuosity and a weight of symbolism that makes them at times almost preachy; they also verge on the bloodlessly academic, as if this formidably talented artist had devoted more energy to polishing her craft than to deepening her vision. Yes, they refer to the world, but one is
nevertheless left with the feeling that they are ultimately about their own perfection.