The new paintings by Trace Miller on view at the C. Grimaldis Gallery have some very old subject matter. It is as if he has perused through ancient and Renaissance art history in coming up with images that are then layered as if they were a peeling fresco.
Bad pun on his first name notwithstanding, Trace Miller does indeed rely on figurative tracings and architectural allusions evocative of so much from the art historical record. More idealized than literal in thematic treatment, his paintings do not force any single meaning upon us. So you will recognize visual references without feeling this is art chained to any narrow agenda.
And yet the whole matter of feeling is where Miller's art has so often seemed problematic. Although this young Baltimore artist's technical facility never ceases to impress, his abundance of technique and art historical allusions still leave one wondering why the emotional content is concealed if not downright non-existent. I couldn't help drawing an analogy with talented short story writers who have a knack for building dandy sentences, a flair for coming up with astute literary references, and yet either an inability or an unwillingness to finally make their short stories mean something.
That nagging sense of thematic disappointment puts something a damper on the show, but hardly prevents one from enjoying it on its own terms.
Many of the exhibited paintings offer admirable proof of how knowingly Miller has been thinking about the way in which Old Master drawings capture human figuration through a few deft definitional slashes for a calf or curled lines for facial features. Miller's two-panel painting "Crosscurrents" includes a figurative grouping in which the line-drawn figures have the effect of coming from a sheet of sketches.
"Crosscurrents" may be typical of his work, but within his set vocabulary of images there is much variation and the occasional unexpected reference or bit of flung paint. In the other paintings, we are variously presented with three silhouetted Graces, a monumentally assertive horse, a fragment of text, an odalisque reminiscent of Ingres, the artist's own face, and more. But as with the busily layered art historical references in the recent paintings of the influential New York artist David Salle, one wonders if more sometimes registers as less.
Trace Miller exhibits his new paintings at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 1006 Morton St., through Nov. 2. For more information, call 539-1080.