Artist reinterprets the gods

Art: Classical mythology inspires the paintings and drawings of Deborah Donelson, but she makes these female images entirely hers.

September 21, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

"What I enjoy in my paintings are the surprises they may hold," says Deborah Donelson, whose paintings and drawings are on view at Gomez Gallery.

There are plenty of surprises in the two dozen or so works in this show, which Donelson has devoted to images of female figures inspired by classical mythology.

There's a world of difference between Donelson's Aphrodites and Ariadnes and the lushly painted goddesses of classical antiquity, however.

Donelson's Goddess of Love, for example, wears a skirt that looks like it came from The Gap; she's about 15 years old, and she sticks her tongue out provocatively, making one wonder whether the scene is Mount Olympus or Baltimore's legendary Block.

(The picture can also be interpreted as a reworking of Botticelli's famous "Birth of Venus," which so scandalized 15th-century Florence that mobs burned his paintings in the streets.)

Donelson's goddesses and nymphs are not representatives of divine perfection but of an all-too-human drama, the personified urges, fears, griefs, doubts and obsessions that painters like Botticelli and Ingres tried to tame by means of a rigid formal discipline.

Donelson lets it all hang out, so to speak. Her forms emerge from thickly layered surfaces whose underpainting is clearly visible. The effect is one of forces held in great tension as the recognizable image on top struggles to contain a caldron of wild, chaotic color bubbling up from below.

Even when she depicts male mythological figures, Donelson casts them in female form. Thus Icarus, the youth who flew too close to the sun, causing his wax wings to melt and his body to plunge into the sea, is reincarnated here as a young girl. Meanwhile the centaurs, represented in classical mythology as half-man, half-horse, in Donelson's paintings also sprout breasts.

I don't know if all this adds up to some feminist agenda, but I doubt it would make much difference anyway. Donelson has found a way of reimagining familiar subjects in terms that speak to the contemporary situation in which both genders find themselves.

"Too much explanation limits exploration of the work," she says diplomatically. "My hope is that, whatever the paintings may mean to me, they may also bring personal meaning to those who choose to spend time with them."

On his own

Mark Eisendrath is a young artist who recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and is still struggling to make a name for himself. Judging from his current show in Monkton, a habit of going against the grain may take him far.

If you believe the gallery system exploits artists (gallery owners typically pocket half the price of each picture they sell), there are basically two alternatives: either create art that can't be sold in galleries, or sell the art yourself.

Since the late 1970s, artists have been producing works with the conscious intent of resisting being exploited by the market. Some art forms, such as installation, are impractical as commodities (though people still try to buy them). Other forms, such as performance art, conceptual art, happenings and earthworks, cannot be purchased at any price.

But if you accept the fact that artists must eat, and that they should profit from the fruit of their labor, artists who are their own marketers obviously gain from the absence of a middleman.

Eisendrath sells his work over the Internet and at private showings in the homes of friends.

His current show includes works on paper -- paintings and drawings -- and sculpture, in wood and clay, all of which have a lovely setting at the home of family friends in Monkton.

One entire wing of the house, originally designed to showcase a previous owner's collection of Asian art, serves as the gallery space. The expansive yard and grounds do double duty as a sculpture garden.

Eisendrath took off several months during his junior year to travel around the world, hoping to see it with fresh eyes. His travels took him to Europe, Africa and Asia before he returned home.

In the years since then, he has developed an abstract style that, though it owes a debt to European modernism, also seems to incorporate ideas from traditions as diverse as African sculpture, Asian ceramics and Meso-American textiles. (Of course, European modernism owes a debt to these traditions as well. Eisendrath's synthesis at least seems unique to him within the terms of the universal tradition of borrowing.)

Although Eisendrath paints on paper rather than canvas, his surfaces are thickly built up, with many layers of underpainting whose visual and emotional traces are still felt in the final image.

Some of his small drawings are exquisitely worked abstractions that recall the visual understatement of Calder or Klee when viewed from afar, yet reveal themselves as richly textured inventions when seen close up.

This is a lovely show by a young artist who seems to know where he is going and how to get there. It's well worth the trip, and the half-hour drive from Baltimore through the horse country is an added bonus. For information and directions, call 410-329-3156.

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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