When Raoul Middleman paints a portrait, his brush strokes have so much expressionistic fervor that the subjects have no choice but to come alive on the canvas. When he paints a landscape, he brings the same vigor to his depictions of Baltimore's gritty industrial heritage.
During his long career as a Baltimore artist, Middleman has sought out people and places that are not pretty -- at least by conventional standards. His take on Baltimore will not be found in tourist brochures.
As the 56-year-old artist himself pungently points out in a statement for his one-man show at the Jewish Community Center: "I like to paint people who are on the fringe, disenfranchised, alienated, not surrounded by a bunch of bourgeois bric-a-brac."
Wielding a writer's pen as well as a painter's brush, he goes on to say: "My portraits combine into large operatic allegories -- perverse, confrontational, vulgar -- in which mythology and my studio on Calvert Street exist in a wacky simultaneity. Gypsies, dwarfs, nudes in boots standing by platters of fish cohabit a burlesque stage which is conjured out of the floorboards of my studio, their eyes betraying a look of sadness and mischief commingled. These giant narratives express my love of the pageantry of life."
The relationship between Middleman in his studio and the world outside comes across well in the painting "Inside -- Outside" (1983), in which the T-shirt-clad, bearded artist works in his studio. A messily energetic cityscape can be glimpsed through the window behind him.
Another self-portrait, this one dating to 1988, also shows how his personality and his painterly technique fuse. Clasping a cigar in one hand, the artist stands with his mouth and eyes wide open as if to confront whatever life has to offer. The deep creases in his forehead and the gray specks in his dark hair tell us that he has done some serious -- and no doubt some intensely non-serious -- living. The crowning touch is the way in which the hair flies up from the top of his head. One gets the impression that for him to use a comb would be to resign himself to middle class conformity.
In his portraits of other people, his wild brush strokes are likewise strategically placed. A 1979 picture, "Artist's Parents," affectionately places his elderly parents side by side. They're jTC holding hands. The loose paint handling translates to his mother's hand merging into his father's hand in a flowing manner that conveys emotional if not strictly anatomical truth.
Other portraits are marked by a variety of characters centered on the canvas and if anything leaning toward us a confrontational bit. "Jennifer in Red Hat" (1991), for instance, has the seated model with one leg draped over the chair in such a way that her fleshy calf and strong knee jut right at us.
The deep brown shades often painted behind these models make for backdrops that are both solid and swirling. Also, he tends to keep background imagery to a minimum, so our attention will not be distracted.
Seeing such portraits in close proximity can be a slightly tense experience. Although the JCC installation of these generally large paintings really does crowd them too closely together, there is something to be said for such rapid introductions to a gallery of Middleman characters.
The exhibit also features brooding paintings of the Baltimore waterfront in which the oil tanks, cranes and silos have an ugly dignity that one suspects the artist would not trade in for all the trinkets to be had at Harborplace.
"Raoul Middleman: Solo" runs at the Jewish Community Center, at 5700 Park Heights Ave., through Oct. 31. Call 542-4900.