Joan Erbe, George Udel are happily different

ARTISTIC ODD COUPLE

June 09, 1991|By Mary Corey

Anyone who thinks an artist's life is a peaceful thing has never spent an evening with Joan Erbe and her husband, George Udel.

First of all, the phone won't stop ringing. (Hello, Steve. . . . Hold on, Elsie. . . . Come on over, Tilden.) Then there's Natey, the couple's handsome 9-year-old grandson, shuffling around the second floor. Isn't that the doorbell? Just a neighbor dropping by to chat about his new airplane.

Mr. Udel, meanwhile, is trying to lead an impromptu tour through the couple's Roland Park home. At first glance, the place is overwhelming: every nook and cranny jam-packed with paintings, sculptures, photos and toys; flea-market finds going side by side with precious art.

What's a stranger to make of it all?

"That we're slovenly housekeepers," says Ms. Erbe, a woman given to short sentences and long sighs.

Mr. Udel, standing by the dining room table (at least you think there's a dining room table beneath the marking pens, paper, shoe boxes and large ceramic pig), concurs.

"When I was a younger man, I had erotic fantasies," says Mr.

Udel, 60. "Now I have dreams about clear surfaces."

Color them eccentric, irascible and unpredictable, but over the years Joan Erbe and George Udel have created styles all their own. They haven't kept pace with the local art scene; they've set it. She is a painter, sculptor and jeweler, whose work commands as much as $6,000. His name is synonymous with film. He's made them, sold them, reviewed them. But his major accomplishment has been in helping found the Baltimore Film Forum, a non-profit organization that sponsors film festivals.

They are living proof opposites can attract. She'd sooner drowned in chartreuse paint than analyze her work; he'll discuss anything -- from the meaning of life to the meaning behind his wife's paintings.

After three decades as her agent and manager, he considers the latter his right. Although he failed as a professional salesman, he has had no trouble selling gallery owners from Washington to San Diego on the beauty of a Joan Erbe work.

"When Joan was much shyer than she is now, people would come up and ask her about her work and say, 'Well, what do you mean by this?' She didn't really know what to say.. . . So I armed her with a statement saying: 'If I could articulate it, I wouldn't bother to paint it,' " he says.

"Now," says Ms. Erbe, 64, "I've forgotten how to say that."

Others have used words like "grotesque," "distorted" and "disturbing" to describe her art.

That, like much of life, leaves her unfazed.

"It's OK," she says. "Grotesque is sort of normal anyway."

Once you see a Joan Erbe painting though, it's hard to forget. Siamese twins in hot pink dresses; a brown-haired child festooned in a clown suit; well-heeled women wearing misshapen faces.

In her work -- and her life -- a subtle tension often exists. Conversations with her husband often give way to light-hearted bickering. He grows long-winded, and she rolls her eyes. He reveals a family secret, and she sighs. Finally, she reprimands him.

"I feel like Nancy Reagan sitting here telling you what to say," she says.

But if theirs has been a you-say-tomato-I-say-tomahto existence, similar quirky sensibility has helped keep them together.

They met at a Marx Brothers double feature in 1954. She thoughhe looked like Groucho Marx; he thought she was a beauty with a beguiling manner.

They married two years later and today joke about why they'd never divorce. "We're too intermeshed," Mr. Udel says looking around the couple's living room. "If we were to separate, it would probably take seven years just to sort out all this stuff."

More seriously, he says, "With all of our problems and misadventures, the reason we stay together is when we contemplate being apart that seems even worse."

One of the problems the two face now is Mr. Udel's recent resignation as festival program director of the Baltimore Film Forum. Although he was a founder of the 22-year-old organization, he left quietly several months ago over the issue of censorship. Two weeks ago, he made his resignation public through an open letter to the forum's board.

The controversy arose over two short films, "Dick" and "We're Talking Vulva," which Mr. Udel and several program advisers decided to include in Baltimore's International Film Festival. After several board members expressed concern over the titles, they were removed from the program and flier. A vote was taken. The films were shown, but not in the order Mr. Udel had selected and with a warning about their possible objectionable nature, he says.

He calls it censorship.

Vicky Westover, executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum, says it's not. The titles had to be removed from the printed material because the press deadline approached before the board's vote was taken, she says.

Instead, she believes the controversy arose because Mr. Udel has been reluctant to accept the more businesslike nature of the group.

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