Artists' visions not so comic

Exhibit: John Muth and Kent Williams, whose works are on display at the Gomez Gallery, draw notice in serious art circles.

Fine Arts

March 28, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Figurative art has long been a staple of the underground subculture of adult comic books and graphic novels. What's interesting is what happens when that alienated sensibility makes its influence felt in more conventional venues such as art galleries and museums.

This has happened before, of course, notably in the early 1960s, when Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol first brought comic book imagery into the rarefied domain of high art.

Two painters currently at the Gomez Gallery give a contemporary spin to the eternal tug-of-war between "low" and "high" culture. John Muth and Kent Williams are both well-respected illustrators of comics and graphic novels whose work also commands the attention of serious art lovers.

Of the two, Muth is the more immediately accessible, at least initially.

His female portraits and nudes combine the shimmering surfaces of Ingres' harem bathers with the slick brushwork of a John Singer Sargent portrait.

There's also a series of paintings of a dancing couple whose graceful, tango-like steps evoke the intimate relations between men and women, and a group of strangely atmospheric landscapes that exude mystery and yearning.

Muth's work is so easy on the eye one tends almost not to notice where he departs from nature. Although he generally paints from life, he also uses photographs as references, incorporating into the finished works the camera's subtle spatial distortions.

By contrast, there is nothing at all subtle about Williams' large self-portraits. They were inspired by Rodin's sculpture of "The Walking Man" and a similar striding figure in the art museum in Raleigh, N.C., where the artist currently resides.

Williams' work draws obsessively on images of death, dismemberment and loss -- themes that also seem to recur regularly in the comics and graphic novels that he and Muth have illustrated over the last decade.

A superb draftsman who renders his tormented human figures with the anatomical accuracy of a Baroque crucifixion scene, Williams' bow to the conventions of classical realism makes the bloody violence of his imagery all the more unnerving.

Interestingly, both Williams and Muth describe their work in autobiographical terms. Both are in their mid-30s, and both suggest that the inspiration for the works in this show arose from marital difficulties they've experienced over the last year or so.

It's also tempting, however, to view the uneasiness that pervades both artists' work as part of the Zeitgeist of their generation, the post-baby boom X-ers who, for the most part, have experienced neither the collective moral certainty nor the economic security their predecessors took for granted.

That anxiety is part of the ethos of the cultural underground whose comics and graphic novels Muth and Williams have illustrated.

It's an outlook that seems much darker and bleaker than the funny-page stereotypes Lichtenstein and Warhol parodied to such hilarious effect as send-ups of mid-century consumer culture.

For Muth and Williams there's nothing much to laugh at if it turns out that not only is the joke on you, but also that the party's over.

Missing: black history

The long-awaited fourth volume of Link, Baltimore's locally produced arts journal, has arrived, and this reader was fascinated by Ruth Turner's essay, "The Presence of Absence: A Conceptual Tour of African-American History in Baltimore."

Turner, who is white and a native of Baltimore, sets out to examine the missing history of the city's African-American community.

Her premise is reminiscent of the landmark "Mining the Museum" exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society a few years back, which showed how systematically black Marylanders had been excluded from the state's official histories.

Turner's piece takes the form of a "catalog of places in Baltimore where significant events in African-American history took place, but where no monument or acknowledgment exists."

"The original buildings may be gone," she writes, "but their presence remains."

Among the locales on Turner's conceptual "tour" is the so-called "trail of tears" on Pratt Street along which slaves were paraded on their way to the waiting slave ships anchored in Fells Point.

Another stop along the tour is the original site of what was to become St. Frances Academy, established in 1828 by the Oblate Sisters of Providence as the first school to educate black children in Baltimore.

Today the school is located at 501 E. Chase St. But for the first 10 years of its existence it was located in the home of its founder, Mother Elizabeth Lange, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seminary Court, the site presently occupied by the Penn Lumber Co.

Still another site is the Laurel Hill Cemetery, the burial ground for generations of black Baltimoreans that was demolished in 1958 to make way for a department store.

Many of the 7,000 people interred before the demolition remain buried under what is today a Food Depot and DAV thrift store at 2300-2400 Belair Road.

This is a highly imaginative work, yet there is nothing fanciful about it.

Turner spent several years painstakingly researching her subject at the Pratt library and in local archives.

It is a tribute to her dedication to the project that many of these lost sites have been found again, and their significance for Maryland history rediscovered.

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