From A Home In Baltimore, A Mosaic View On America

April 17, 1994|By GINA MARIA CARUSO

Is Baltimore a good place for artists? Painter Richard Sober thinks so. "Baltimore is a great place to work, because there aren't that many distractions," he says. "It's a small town and, in a way, it's a backwater. I mean that as a compliment."

San Francisco and Spain are just some of the places the 41-year-old Mr. Sober has lived, but he always finds his way back to Baltimore, his hometown.

"It's an intimate city, and it takes a long time to know it. It's still a working-class town, and will always be one," he says. "You can build 10 Harborplaces and it will still be a working-class town. You can't take that out of Baltimore, and I enjoy that."

When he was only 15 years old, Mr. Sober knew he wanted to become an artist. "I was taking drawing classes at Maryland Institute on Saturday mornings, and I got off the bus on Lanvale Street and Eutaw Place and I said, "When I'm an adult this is what I want to be doing. I want to make art. . . . it was like a revelation." Smiling shyly, he adds, "I romanticized it, but I'm fortunate because I always stuck to it."

Perseverance and discipline come naturally to Mr. Sober, a Charles Village resident. Although he works as a house painter ++ by day, in less than a year he has completed 80 paintings, part of a series he calls "A Book for Fools Who Can't Read: My Home in America." (Books for fools is what the Aztecs called paintings, he says.)

"These paintings are a mosaic," he says. "I say I'm going to make 120 paintings, but it could be an endless project."

Mr. Sober, who is a poet as well as a prolific painter, says he thinks of his paintings as visual poetry.

In fact, the series of paintings is a long visual letter to his Great Uncle Abraham. A year ago, when Mr. Sober was visiting his mother, he picked up an ashtray and saw, painted inside it, three golden fish caught in a net. His Uncle Abraham, after living in the United States for six months, took the ashtray as a souvenir to Warsaw, Poland, and gave it to his sister, Mr. Sober's grandmother, who was the youngest of 13 children. "Then my grandmother came to this country in 1929 and brought the ashtray with her. However, my Great Uncle Abraham didn't like the United States very much, so he stayed in Warsaw. My grandmother tried to reach him in 1939, but they lost touch. He either died in Warsaw or Treblinka . . . so I started making these paintings, which are a long visual letter to him."

The paintings are meditations on America, and like poems, condense natural events so that they seem fantastic, and often dreamlike. The figures and objects represented are often distorted, and occupy empty, evacuated landscapes and places.

The rich, lush colors and the subject matter form an ambiguity. In one painting, a shirtless man sits on a chair in an empty room. The man has raised an eyebrow, and folded one blue hand over the other in his lap. A carpet of white grass grows beneath him, and above him hangs a crooked portrait of a 19th-century gentleman. Just outside his window, a green-blue ark with a large white fish floating above it glides by, as if trying to escape the man's attention. One can reasonably argue that his paintings are something like a combination of Milton Avery's landscapes and Balthus' (Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) figures.

"His paintings are almost sinister," says Rosemary Mahoney, a writer friend of Mr. Sober. "What you're seeing is his view of the world. It's sometimes hard for me to believe that all of those different images and thoughts come out of one mind."

Despite the menancing atmosphere in many of his paintings, Mr. Sober never loses his sense of humor. Viewing his work, one is even reminded of the enchanting quality of Paul Klee's paintings.

As both as an artist and a person, Mr. Sober is unpretentious about what he does. "I don't want to be a specialist," he says. "I think it's important to be rooted in everyday life. It's absurd that there is some romantic notion that artists should be poor, shouldn't have families."

Someone once asked Mr. Sober if it was possible for him to stay rooted to the earth when he isn't able to paint full time. "I thought it was such a stupid question that I made about 50 paintings in response to it," he says. "I made paintings about sex, home, food, sleeping. I was doing a lot of other things, like working and taking care of my daughter, Sarah."

Although he would like to spend more time at his craft, Mr. Sober isn't one to complain. "Most people aren't doing what they want to be doing," he declares. "I have a good life because I make paintings. And I sell them, too. I'm not worried as long as I maintain my integrity as a painter and a human being."

A number of Richard Sober's works from the "Book for Fools" series are being shown as part of a four-person show, "Recent Works: New Directions," at the Fine Arts Building at Loyola College through April 28.

GINA MARIA CARUSO is coordinator of public programs and runs the film series at the Walters Art Gallery.

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