`Old-fashioned' art refreshingly new

Review: The works in Grimaldis Gallery's `Summer 99' peek at the future but would be comfortably viewed in the past.

August 13, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the late 1940s, critic Clement Greenberg wrote an influential essay titled "The Crisis of the Easel Picture." He argued, among other things, that the convention of figures placed in illusionistic, three-dimensional space, dominant since the Renaissance, had been rendered moot by the radical experiments of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock.

The half-century since Greenberg's article appeared has seen his ideas first vindicated, then repudiated, and finally given new life amid the convulsions of postmodernism, a curious pastiche of styles that manages to look backward and forward at the same time.

It's interesting to imagine how Greenberg, were he alive today, would interpret the large group show on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through Aug. 21. No doubt he would be shocked to find former Ab Exers like Grace Hartigan or All-Over painters like Jules Olitski represented by pictures that actually look like recognizable people and places.

As a modernist, Greenberg was commited to abstraction as the art of the future, and as a Marxist, he saw the progressive triumph of abstraction as part of a historically inevitable process.

True, he envisioned there might be temporary setbacks along the way -- periods in which traditional forms like landscape, figurative art and still life reasserted themselves in debased form.

But overall he was certain that these would be mere bumps in a road that ended in the aesthetic utopia of abstraction.

Grimaldis' summer show brings together all the artists represented by that gallery in a sort of preview of what's up for the coming year. Despite the diversity of individual styles, much of the work is figurative, and a lot of it looks remarkably like those illusionistic, three-dimensional easel paintings Greenberg believed he had laid to rest forever.

Henry Coe, Raoul Middleman, Eugene Leake, David Brewster, Sukey Bryan and Olitski all weigh in with variants on traditional landscape and seascape (though Bryan and Olitski push the form about as far as it can go toward abstraction and remain legible).

John Ferry's diminutive oil paintings of abandoned buildings in Fells Point offer a personal take on the cityscape. Their combination of tiny, precisely rendered architectural details and strong impression of light recalls the spirit of the small 17th-century Dutch paintings on view at the Walters Art Gallery across the street.

Hartigan, who made her reputation in the New York School as a contemporary of Pollack and De Kooning, in recent years has been working in a more figurative style inspired by classical mythology and medieval legends.

"Roman Still Life," one of two Hartigan works in the show, depicts a collection of bottles and other objects outlined against a background of mottled blues and browns that recall the patina of old Roman glass. "Ginevra" is a freely drawn bust of a woman one imagines might equally well have been Queen Guinevere or the goddess Minerva.

Maria Karametou and Sandy Jackson seem closest in spirit to the iconoclastic mindset of postmodern rhetoric.

Karametou's mixed-media constructions on the theme of home and hearth are conceived as memory pieces exploring various autobiographical experiences of the artist. But I always have a hard time with works that seem almost impossible to figure out unless you are the artist's mother.

Jackson's irreverent sendups of a medieval altar panel and '50s television screen border on camp, but I can imagine them as useful exercises in visual deconstruction for art school undergraduates.

By and large the Grimaldis show doesn't pretend to be cutting-edge, whatever that means. There is still room for an authentic art somewhere between the twin extremes of Man Ray's fur-lined teacups and the glizty kitsch of Thomas Kinkade. The works on display suggest that reports of the death of easel painting probably have been greatly exaggerated.

By now you may have divined that I am just retrograde enough to treasure the landscapes of Eugene Leake, who throughout a long career has seemed utterly untroubled by the sturm and drang of fashionable avant-gardism.

Leake's quiet landscapes "Winter Farm," "Horses" and "Night Painting Near Old York Road" are simply convincing descriptions of a place and mood that any one of us can still appreciate.

They're old-fashioned, perhaps, but also pictures you can happily stick on your wall and live with for years. For my money, that's still worth something.

`Summer 99'

Where: Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m.; through Aug. 31 Admission: Free

Call: 410-539-1080

Pub Date: 8/13/99

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