Reality Check

Painting realistic figures hasn't been in fashion for years, but that doesn't mean it's not still being done with eye-opening results. A show at Maryland Art Place illustrates.


It was the summer of golf balls. Then the fall. Months passed and the golf balls remained. They beckoned in the light of morning and afternoon, an invitation not to fetch clubs and head to the course but to get the paint brushes and see what might yet be discovered in a small, still corner of a room.

The manufacturer made the golf balls white and orange. Top Flites, mostly. The painter Mark E. Karnes made them in shades of gray and ocher and green, and shimmering like sloops in a thick summer haze. Where light hit them brightest he made white-white globs of paint. The more Karnes looked at the golf balls, the more mysterious they seemed.

"Art, when it's really good," says Karnes, "is about celebrating experience. It's taking a golf ball and saying, `This is really amazing.' "

Watch that kind of talk. You could start a religious war. Karnes toiling in his attic studio in Rodgers Forge could in strict abstractionist circles be considered some sort of fussy reactionary, a gentle and painterly Ted Kaczynski raging against the machine.

As might Karnes' 12 fellow artists whose work appears in a group show at Maryland Art Place through Feb. 26. It's realism and more realism in the 110 works of painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture, although curator Joe Shannon acknowledges range within the category by calling the show "Realist/Stylist." The title suggests divergent impulses even as Shannon acknowledges that a painter can no more avoid stylizing than you can resist the slant of your own handwriting.

Maryland Art Place in its 17-year history has leaned more toward non-realist stuff, but the appearance of these artists in the first show of what some consider a new millennium turns out to be not a point of departure but an accident of timing. This exhibit was meant to follow a show of abstract work in the fall, but logistical complications forced a postponement.

Still, it's Y2K be dissed. Walk into the gallery on West Saratoga Street and it's Life Before Bill Gates; heck, it's Life Before UNIVAC. It's painting with little regard for Dutch painter Piet Mondrian's 1919 declaration that the "emotion of beauty is cosmic, universal" and therefore can only be found in abstract form. It's as if the Russian Kasimir Malevich never announced his intention to "liberate art from the ballast of the representational world" by painting a black square against white and calling it a day's work.

That was 1913. This is 2000. And lately you can find Karnes up in the attic in the ninth month of sitting before a canvas the size of a book jacket painting a picture of a facsimile of an ancient bust of the Greek goddess of health, Hygeia.

"I'm embarrassed to say," says Karnes. "I've been working on it since June."

It looks fine. It looks, well, finished. Yet Karnes continues sweating details -- the precision of the pits in the surface, the subtle planes and, above all, the light.

All due respect to Mondrian, Malevich and nearly a century of abstraction, Karnes has always pursued ideals of beauty through observable realities. The reasons, he says, are plain as day.

"The sense that everything you look at is new," says Karnes, who turns 52 this year. "That nature is amazingly rich. You don't have to invent."

It's what one might expect from a fellow who took his first significant inspiration from Edwin Dickinson. A 20th-century American realist painter, Dickinson influenced generations of artists, but you won't find him mentioned in most of the big art history survey books. Dickinson used some of the dashing brushwork associated with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and '50s, especially Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, but stood apart from any particular school of painting.

His natural state

Karnes -- who teaches painting and drawing at the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- admires a number of non-figurative painters, especially de Kooning, who he says "caught the rhythms of nature, the textures of nature."

Yet Karnes himself, who earned his master's in fine arts at Yale, has never strayed from realism and always worked with the subject in front of him, cultural pressures notwithstanding.

"When I went to school everything was either de Kooning or [Jackson] Pollock. If you worked figuratively you were dealing with something that was less important, less fashionable."

Did he ever go through a non-figurative phase?

"Never. It never sort of struck me," says Karnes. "Other than design class. I always was fascinated by looking at things."

Those golf balls, for example. He'd never considered golf balls as a still-life subject until one day in the summer of 1998 when he and his older son, Eric, returned from the course.

"My pockets would be kind of filled with tees, golf balls," says Karnes. "I'd lay them up on the dresser."

Next thing he knows he's looking at them sitting there. He's noticing how light bubbles in the dimples. Whites going to silver. Orange balls radiating like tiny sunsets.

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