Leake's 'dark' paintings celebrate life and light

January 06, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The 20th century has left us completely conditioned to art that addresses the negatives of life. Alienation, violence, cruelty, famine, war, pestilence and death are our everyday fare. We tend to forget that it's possible to make a statement about the human condition that is at once optimistic and profound.

Eugene Leake's art reminds us of that.

Baltimore gallery-goers have been following Leake's career through his biennial shows at the C. Grimaldis Gallery for 15 years, and we've grown accustomed to expecting more satisfying work with each new installment.

"Eugene Leake: Paintings and Drawings," which opened yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is broader in scope. It contains a number of sketches in addition to oil paintings, as well as works that go back to 1963. But fully two thirds of the show dates from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Leake has been at the top of his form.

There are a number of darker paintings here than is usual from Leake, including a number of night scenes. But if one expects a symbolically darker side of the artist as well, that is not the case. Instead, Leake gives us paintings in which the nature of life is pondered and found good.

In these works, Leake teaches us that optimism need not be naive or superficial; for his is a deep celebration of life. He teaches that solitude is not necessarily loneliness; for his is the solitude of freedom from the madding crowd, to be at one with nature. He also reveals a continuing commitment to experimentation, especially as he increasingly abandons realism of depiction in favor of the reality of paint as paint.

"Tree by the Water" (1992), one of the show's finest paintings, is a good example. It is largely dark, but in every part of it there is an exuberance that communicates the joy of working with paint and of being totally inside the landscape. The way the white of sky penetrates the tree, the way a bit of undergrowth tumbles down to water and the water tumbles up to meet it, the touches of light green and white seen here and there through the tree, the sheer energy of the brush stroke (but without loss of control) -- all make this an exhilarating painting.

Those who expect the night scenes to reveal a somber mood are in for a surprise. The night in "Smith Hardware" (1993), for instance, is an embracing one, and it contains so many delicious jots and dabs of color that the picture becomes almost about paint. Except it's not. It's about delight in seeing.

A revelation in the show is the drawings, especially the watercolors. In "Newagen Rocks" and "Newagen" (both from about 1980), Leake shows how a minor change in light can subtly change the colors of everything in what is virtually the same scene. In "Winter Fields" and "Near Walker Road" (both 1992), the scene is suggested with the greatest economy, but these are complete and rewarding works.

This show is a great pleasure to experience. Not only does it confirm Leake's stature, it also moves us to join his celebration of life. No small feat in this age.

ART REVIEW

What: "Eugene Leake: Paintings and Drawings"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through March. 13

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18; free on Thursdays

Call: (410) 396-7100

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