Planet's poetry inspires realist

Art: Chilean Soledad Salame explores rain forest and reef in her exhibit at the Gomez.

May 17, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The destruction of the natural environment weighs heavily on Baltimore artist Soledad Salame, yet the impassioned works that emerge from her concern are joyful and lovely beyond words.

Salame, whose paintings, prints and sculpture are at the Gomez Gallery through June 18, is an environmental artist who makes that politically correct label seem irrelevant as well as redundant. Her work is less about attitude than feeling, more about poetry than polemic.

A native of Chile who has lived in Baltimore for the past decade, Salame's art defies easy categorization. She is a contemporary realist whose instinct for design approaches lyrical abstraction.

In her large painting "Venice Remains," for example, one can visually peel back layers of style that taken together constitute a compendium of modern art history.

On the surface, the painting is a completely contemporary interpretation of the interplay of light, architecture and water.

Peel off a layer, however, and one perceives successively the emotional vigor of an Abstract Expressionist canvas, the nostalgia of an Impressionist seascape, the finely drawn lines of a Japanese landscape and even the luminous spaciousness of an 18th-century view by Canaletto.

This is marvelous alchemy indeed. Salame insists she arrives at such syntheses intuitively, and one tends to believe her when she says that it would be impossible for anyone to consciously try to re-create such a seamless melding of styles.

In any case, this is obviously deeply personal work, a result of the artist's passionate commitment to the natural environment and her painstaking researches into the complex physical and chemical interrelationships that sustain the Earth's fragile biosphere.

Many pieces are based on the artist's exploration of insect life amid the flora and fauna of the tropical rain forest. In Salame's work, the rain forest is a metaphor for the amazing vitality of nature, a symbol of the generative power of a universal life force that animates the entire planet.

But if her vision is global in its embrace, the means she employs to express it are strikingly particular and concrete.

Her canvases are studded with leaves, bits of earth, grasses and the bark off trees. Some incorporate the bodies of rare insects and other forest fauna; others are dominated by large, rough-hewn slabs of epoxy shaped and colored to resemble amber. This mineral that has particular evocative resonance in Salame's work because it has preservative qualities that make it, symbolically, a kind of Mother Nature's memory.

The smaller pieces include the artist's amazingly detailed miniature studies of bugs, butterflies and other creatures of the forest, which evoke the infinite, marvelous diversity of nature on the smallest scale.

The show also presents an array of Salame's sculpture, in which the artist has merged quartz rocks she has collected with artificial molded epoxy and resin crystals.

This is the work of a gifted artist working at the height of her creative power: trenchant without being preachy, incisive and beautiful according to the artist's own lights, wholly original and uniquely personal -- one of those rare, inspired shows that is simply not to be missed.

Garden on film

Also at the Gomez is an exhibit of botanical photographs by Imogen Cunningham, perhaps the foremost female photographer of the 20th century.

Cunningham's long career spanned nearly the whole range of styles that were important in the first three-quarters of the century. She began as a Pictorialist, taking dreamy, evocative pictures of women and children in the sentimental manner of Clarence White and the young Edward Steichen.

In the 1920s, she adopted the "straight" photographic style of Edward Weston and the f64 Group, whose insistence on photography's independence from painting helped established the sharp-focus, graphic aesthetic of modern photography. Cunningham's nudes, portrait studies and cityscapes in the new style made her one of the most important fine arts photographers of the first half of the century.

The Gomez show presents a selection of contemporary prints of Cunningham's photographs, many made from negatives that date from the 1920s and '30s.

There is a wonderful portrait of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a breathtaking nude that recalls Ingre's voluptuous "Bather," and several stunning close-ups of flowers and other botanicals that demonstrate both technically and aesthetically how far ahead of her time Cunningham really was.

In particular, it would impossible to imagine the later flower photographs of such artists as Paul Caponigro and Robert Mapplethorpe without the precedent of Cunningham's pioneering work.

Like the work many other famous 20th-century photographers, the artist's estate has continued to print photographs from Cunningham's original negatives, although these pictures do not, of course, have the cachet -- or the high price tags -- of vintage prints.

Soledad Salame and Imogen Cunningham continue at the Gomez Gallery, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, through June 8.

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