Baltimore artist Bennard Perlman is no stranger to the pages of The Evening Sun. As a 14-year-old artist in the making in 1942, he was the second-prize winner in a sketch contest sponsored by this newspaper. Thus launched on a still-active career as a painter, writer and educator, the 63-year-old Perlman now has a 50-year career retrospective at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
His earliest displayed artwork shows how he was both technically precocious and temperamentally devoted to his native city. In the charcoal drawing "Jugartha Brought Before the Roman Consul, after Tiepolo" (1941-42), he drew his inspiration from a canvas at the Walters Art Gallery, and his painting "Eutaw Place Temple" (1943-44) is an exacting depiction of its interior architecture.
As a Baltimore youth and then as an art student at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, he developed an interest in landscapes and cityscapes that has never left him. "Pier 1, Pratt Street" (1946) depicts banana boats docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor on a dreary gray day; a section of the McCormick building can be seen to the side. Equally glum is the backyard view of a "House on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh" (1947). The blocky solidity and somber palette he uses for both these paintings evinces the influence of the so-called Ashcan School of American painters from the early 20th century.
Paris-style Modernism enters his artistic vocabulary in "Busted Pipe" (1948), which represents a water pipe that burst in a fraternity house where he was living. Although you can recognize the pipes, toilet fixtures and walls in this composition, the treatment is abstracted enough to make the painting no less a study in how color planes intersect.
Although Perlman sometimes opted for pure abstraction -- as in "Composition" (1960) -- he generally has made pictures that retain something of the representational. So while "Great Falls, Yellowstone Park" (1961) might seem an abstract exercise in piling on paint with the palette knife, his method here reinforces the sense of how agitated falling water contrasts with calmer pools and rock ledges.
Perlman's extensive travels are reflected in works ranging from "View of Oxford" (1975), in which the enormous cloud-filled English sky would make Constable and Turner smile, to "Toward the Western Wall" (1979), in which the realistic representation of two men walking in Jerusalem is also a painterly examination of how their black-garbed forms stand out against the light-colored stone in the pavement and wall.
His more recent still life and landscape paintings rely on brightly contrasting colors that speak to his emotional response more than to what the eye really sees. Like the French Fauve painters of the first decade of this century, he's not afraid of jarring color combinations. In "Pounding Sea" (1984), which shows a scene off the west coast of France, the angry reds, greens and oranges make a convincing case for what a surging sea must seem like.
For all the changes in his style and for all his trips abroad over the years, Perlman never ceases to find artistic inspiration close to home.
In "USF Constellation" (1991), he adroitly uses the ship's masts to frame the Legg Mason office tower behind it. Moreover, the sea green "skin" of that bulky building almost seems like a sea rising in the near distance. Besides merely suggesting the rest of the downtown skyline, Perlman crops the arrangement so that we are mercifully spared any view of the Constellation visitor center that in actuality dwarfs the vessel it is meant to celebrate.
"Bennard Perlman: Fifty Years of His Art" remains in the Hoffberger Gallery of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, at 7401 Park Heights Ave., through Dec. 1. Call 764-1587.