Erbe's paintings pulse with the life fantastic

March 23, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

It's always a pleasure to see the work of an artist conscious of just what her talent is and working firmly within it. That's certainly the case with Joan Erbe, native of Baltimore and veteran of more than 50 museum and gallery shows in the past 40 years, from Massachusetts to California.

Erbe's figural paintings exist on several levels. With their vivid colors and bright patterns they can be seen as extremely decorative, in the good sense of the term; Erbe's acrylics, sometimes in combination with drawing and with collaged, patterned paper or fabric, produce vibrant works that pulse with life and display the evidence of an unfaltering hand.

On one level Erbe is a fantasy painter; her characters, strangely dressed and made up like figures in a circus or some weird dream sequence in a movie, exist on a plane far from anything like realism.

But if they are not realistic, there is nevertheless a heavy dose of reality in them: They are not true to nature, but they are true to life. For Erbe is really an expressionist whose faces and whose palette combine to present to us human characteristics, personalities, traits, emotions. These are brought out with the kind of humor that makes them mischievous but never vicious.

Look at her characters' eyes and mouths, and they become unmistakably familiar. "Sorceress" has the kind of penetrating gaze that goes right through the facade and sees the inside of whomever she's looking at. "Heir Apparent" is just a pudgy little boy, but already he senses the weight of the job he will inherit, and it makes him sad.

The two women in "Totem" have the air of conspiring against something or someone else, but you sense they would betray each other in a minute if it was to their benefit. "Royal Flirt" is a guy so used to having his way that he has no doubt at all about succeeding with his flirtation -- because of position, however, not charm.

Erbe's colors and patterns are never arbitrary, either; they support what the pictures are all about. "The Last Dance" is about desperation and terror, and the lurid colors of the face and clothing tell you that as much as the face's expression. Pink and white are appropriately the major colors of "Dotted Swiss," which pictures a grown up good-little-girl.

Everything in Erbe's pictures conspires toward the desired effect, and she never overreaches; the results are many satisfactions.

It was a good choice to show Jack Radcliffe's photographs in the "front" or office gallery, not only because his work is figural like Erbe's but because he captures what's going on between the people in his pictures. Whereas Erbe deals with human traits in a somewhat abstract, generalized way, Radcliffe captures moments.

In "Donny & Linda," Donny's coming on fairly strong and Linda's maybe not rejecting him but she's not entirely comfortable with the whole situation. In "Jose and Alejandro," Jose is the one who wants to be sure of Alejandro, and Alejandro isn't going to be possessed by anybody. We don't know if these are real moments or if the people here are acting for the camera, but whichever way it is, Radcliffe knows how to present the dynamics and tensions of human interaction.


What: Paintings of Joan Erbe.

Where: The Nye Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Through April 17.

Call:(410) 752-2080.

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