Middleman celebrates life's mystery and richness


September 15, 1991|By Robert Haskins

A glance at Raoul Middleman's oil paintings might suggest that the Baltimore artist is the David Lynch of oils. Both men revel in city images that are bizarre, garish, even slightly rotten, and both fill their worlds with deceptively ordinary, grotesque people.

The painter's work, however -- currently on display in two local shows -- is not merely a celebration of the lurid, but an invitation to perceive life's mystery and richness from simultaneous perspectives. It is no accident that, in spite of his abstractionist leanings, Mr. Middleman relentlessly concentrates on very familiar modes of visual art -- portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes. The uncomplicated subject matter leaves no riddles on the surface, compelling us to give our full attention to the details of these extraordinary works.

From a distance, outlines, forms, light and shadow are readily apparent in Mr. Middleman's larger-than-life oil canvases at the Jewish Community Center. Closer examination, however, reveals a teeming mass of color, usually dark, rich, sometimes contradictory. Shapes and details occasionally are indistinct, and the brush-strokes are large, overt, even exuberant. Mr. Middleman is an artist who clearly savors the paint medium, allowing its potential to reveal itself fully and naturally.

Even within these stylistic limits, the variety in these works is extraordinary. The two self-portraits, for instance, are particularly striking. In "Inside Outside" (1983), the artist wears T-shirt and jeans. Surrounded by images obsessive in his work -- a fantastic toy, a cluttered cityscape through the window -- he stares unswervingly and stubbornly outward.

The 1988 "Self Portrait" is more direct and more powerful. Here, the artist is in more formal dress against a dark, oily background. His eyes remain intense, but his face expresses an awe-struck, almost ecstatic wonder.

In the touching "Artist's Parents" (1979), the mother and father, holding hands, are extremely ill-defined. The lack of clarity softens their expressions, lending them a fragility both insightful and extremely moving.

And "Spike" (1985), with its gargantuan size (79-by-99 inches), riotous diversity of objects and characters, and unpretentious optimism, is quintessential Middleman. The gypsy-like children, alternately dressed in ordinary and exotic garb, loom in front of a dark, industrial background. A variety of toys, including a nightmarish jack-in-the-box, litter the ground, as do newly dead, bleeding fish and freshly cut lemons. The parade of contradictory images and colors is richly evocative indeed; such assemblages are the very heart of Mr. Middleman's aesthetic.

Equally visionary are Mr. Middleman's landscapes. The sky -- clearly a significant image for the artist -- is expansive and benevolent in "Sandspit" (1991), brooding and indomitable in "Silos" (1988). Such cityscapes as "Coal Loaders" (1990), by contrast, crowd the canvas with urgent industrial imagery, using different layers of paint to create an almost three-dimensional effect.

More striking revelations are to be found in a concurrent exhibit at Artshowcase Gallery downtown, this one devoted to a collection of Mr. Middleman's pastels spanning the past 10 years.

These works are smaller and more intimate, averaging about 18-by-22 inches. The subject matter, too -- sea and landscapes of New England or along the Susquehanna -- lends itself to a gentler approach.

Even so, the works are unmistakably those of Raoul Middleman. A glorious command of color -- remarkably diverse in "Winter Trees" (1989), economical and luminous in "Druid Hill Park Drive" -- is apparent at every turn.

There is too a guileless spontaneity in the drawing and a variety of texture, showing again the artist's masterful understanding of the medium in which he works.

Perhaps most important is the emotional immediacy of these works. Whether expressing luminous transcendence or wonderfully vulgar pageantry, Raoul Middleman's art is uncompromising, rugged, and electric.

Raoul Middleman

Pastels: Artshowcase, 336 N. Charles St. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Sept. 28. Call 783-0007.

Portraits: Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave. Open Mondays and Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays noon to 2:30 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Through Oct. 31. (For information on Jewish holiday closings and to reserve a place for a tour and talk with the artist Oct. 3, call 542-4900.

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