The ordinary becomes poetry

Art: Raoul Middleman and Jann Rosen-Queralt offer two different views of creativity in the commonplace

Fine Arts

April 06, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

Cezanne, an early father of modernism, advised artists to look to nature for inspiration. Modernism has come and gone, but the representation of nature -- albeit in unconventional, sometimes quirky ways -- remains a touchstone for those who have followed.

Modernism began by reinventing the primitive. Painters gradually abandoned the realistic deep space of Renaissance perspective for the flattened planes of Asian art and the iconic figures of African sculpture.

In the postmodern era, the primitive has been replaced by the quotidian. The ordinary and commonplace, rather than the exotic and strange, are now principal wellsprings of creative activity.

Two contrasting aspects of the present sensibility are on view this week in shows by painter Raoul Middleman at the Grimaldis Gallery and installation artist Jann Rosen-Queralt at the Maryland Institute's Decker Gallery in Mount Royal Station.

Middleman, who over the past 30 years has painted some 5,000 works in a neo-expressionist style that now seems familiar as an old shoe, once rented a studio around the corner from The Block.

There, he evolved an approach to the beautiful through close observation of life's passing burlesque show and its bizarre ironies.

The Grimaldis show, which runs through Sunday, presents nearly two dozen recent portraits, landscapes and narrative paintings that reflect the artist's preoccupation with marginalized people and places.

This is an artist who, following Cezanne's admonition, paints what is in front of him, one senses, quickly and with a confidence born of long experience.

Like Cezanne, Middleman seems utterly unconstrained by conventional notions of painterly technique or refinement. Yet on his canvases, the commonplace and banal acquire their own poetic justification.

Middleman's landscapes, for example, eschew broad vistas of uninterrupted terrain in favor of obscure, watery locales overgrown by foliage. His nudes are bar-stool Venuses gone to seed whose jaded bodies mock the ideal forms of their Greek forebears.

The gritty, edgy quality of his subjects Middleman renders with broad brush strokes and a darkly luminous palette that is surprisingly subtle, even in the most exuberant passages, reminding one once again why this artist is one of the Baltimore region's undisputed treasures.

For a contrast, visit Rosen-Queralt's monumental installation in the Mount Royal Station gallery, commissioned for a show curated by former Contemporary Museum director George Ciscle that opens Friday and runs through April 25.

The origins of installation art no doubt go back to Stonehenge and the mysterious giant sculptures of Easter Island.

The form has been given new impetus in the last 30 years by contemporary artists' efforts to make artworks synonymous with the place in which they are experienced.

Fred Wilson's acclaimed installation "Mining the Museum," at the Maryland Historical Society several years back, was one of the most successful local examples of the genre.

Wilson's installation consisted of objects in the society's collection that had been reconceptualized and rearranged in such a way as to tell the stories of people normally ignored by the museum.

Queralt's "Sumus" is also a meditation on history and the commonplace objects that both reveal and conceal it. In this case, it is the building itself that is the object of contemplation.

The piece consists of a 10-foot-tall rectangular box, narrower at its base than at the top, which nearly fills the ground floor of the Decker gallery. As one enters the space through a door at one end, the sound of splashing water and the artist's rhythmic breathing as she swims through it can be heard from loudspeakers mounted on the walls.

One senses there must be something inside the giant box, but the top is too high to peer over.

So one is forced to walk around it and take the stairs at the other end of the gallery to the second floor balcony in order to inspect it further.

From this new vantage point, one looks down on the inside of the box, which is covered by a reflective material that mirrors the building's ceiling and walls. The asymmetrical geometry of the box creates an effect something like a giant kaleidoscope in which the severely symmetrical, neoclassic architecture of the building seems to explode in all directions.

Finally, in the center of the box stands a large, umbrella-shaped structure whose metal spokes are interwoven with dried branches and leaves.

This symbolic tree may represent nature, or at least our attempt to appreciate it in a civilization dominated by machines, symbolized by the roar of a passing train that periodically interrupts the serene sounds of water and breathing.

"Sumus" is a work that is difficult to describe because it depends so much on the viewer's actual presence. Like much contemporary art, it aims more at producing a private experience than a public image that can be reproduced.

This is a new art that implies a new conception of beauty as well. That it ultimately consists of ordinary, everyday materials one might encounter anywhere, that it confounds conventional notions of inside and outside, of creativity and destruction, lends it an eerie sense of danger as well as fascination.

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