Grace Hartigan, clothing and identity

Review: The artist's new exhibit reflects her fascination with facades and costume. Or, as she puts it, maybe it's just an excuse to paint something.

May 25, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

If they must be labeled, simply say that Grace Hartigan's newest paintings at C. Grimaldis Gallery are a wonder and a joy to behold.

Hartigan made her reputation as an abstract expressionist in New York in the 1950s and '60s, but like her contemporary Willem de Kooning, there were always figurative elements in her work. And, with great elan and verve, she managed to pull off a kind of balancing act between recognizable objects and pure emotion distilled through color.

Hartigan's latest paintings are a series of large-scale works based on Oriental motifs. They are a continuation of the theme of identity that she has explored over the past decade or so.

Their colors glow and vibrate just like an expressionistic painting should, But instead of big amorphous areas of blue, yellow and red, she has painted a gorgeous blue robe, a yellow sash and a red hat.

"The truth is, Gauguin said his `Spirit of the Dead Watching' was really just an excuse for a nude," Hartigan says. "In the same way, I guess my pictures of geishas, Kabuki actors and opera singers are excuses for a painting. The subject simply gives you a way to arrange the colors in the painting, because it's more interesting to paint a costume than just a large area of color without any reference to anything else."

Since she was a child, Hartigan says, she's been fascinated by the ways clothes create identities.

In previous series she's used characters from Arthurian legend, from opera and from theater as subject matter for what are essentially abstract expressionist works.

"I did a whole show of opera -- `Carmen,' `Pagliacci,' etc. -- then a whole series of ballet dancers. It's all theater, really," Hartigan says.

"Kabuki is theater. Great queens and emperors, and movie stars are theater. This is the whole thing of identity. But I'm more interested in the costume and the facade. In every series there's one painting where I tend to get interested in who's the real person instead of who's the costumed icon."

In the present show, that urge to reveal the real person beneath the ornate facade comes out in her portrait of a pair of geisha girls captured in a moment of quiet reflection with their musical instruments and lyric poetry.

"I wanted to make them real women, so it was especially difficult," she says. "I had never painted Asian people before, so it was hard to make them real women. That was the only picture in this series that wasn't just an excuse for making a painting."

Hartigan says that artists have always been interested in the ambiguity of identity as it is displayed through costume.

"All those Madonnas -- the artists just put costumes on their girlfriends and wives," she says. "Caravaggio was a master. That's also why Goya and Velasquez liked to paint at court -- all those jewels and ermine and headdresses."

At 78, Hartigan is still working and as fascinated as ever by the possibilities of paint.

"What I'm working on now is imagery based on Algiers and Morocco from the Near East," she says. "I'm using fragments of Delacroix and Ingres. I also have a book on Oriental art which has some really lousy artists who were all involved with this kind of exoticism that wasn't real. It was a setup. They grabbed people and put them in costume to make it look as if it were a slice of life. But it was no more life than Kabuki."

"Grace Hartigan: Aspects of the Far East" continues at C. Grimaldis Gallery through June 3.

Galerie Francoise

Photography continues to generate new interest among local gallery owners and their public. A group show at Galerie Francoise et ses freres in Brooklandville heralds what gallery owner Mary Jo Gordon says she hopes will become an increasingly important part of her exhibition schedule.

The show, titled "Imagination's Vibrancy: Contemporary Photographs," is really a marvelously abbreviated history of the main currents of 20th-century photog- raphy from pictorialism to postmodernism.

Curated by local photographer Lee Hartman, the show's earliest work is a sensuous nude by Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence White originally published in 1905 as a photogravure in the seminal photography journal Camera Work.

At the other end of the spectrum is a fuzzy-focus contemporary color photograph of a nude by Frederic Weber that recalls the early pictorial style of Stieglitz and White while exploiting the postmodernist fashion for visual appropriation and subversion.

In the middle, landscapes by Douglas Keats, Carl Austin Hyatt and Nicholas Trofimuk pay homage to the high modernist style of Paul Strand and Edward Weston. Some of the most interesting pieces in this show are by Jerry Uelsmann, who starting in the late 1960s began exploiting the darkroom technique of printing several different negatives in a single picture to create stunning surrealistic effects.

Given the ambitious scope of this show, it's inevitable perhaps that, overall, the quality of work is uneven. Two late modernist nudes by Tammy Hoffer and a series of nude portraits by Mona Kuhn seem weak next to Stieglitz and White's vintage photogravure and even next to a not-so-terrific 1970s-era photo of a Weston nude printed by the photographer's son, Cole.

Hyatt, Keats and Trofimuk are basically reprises of things Ansel Adams, Weston and Strand did better, and Jan Saudek's faux-Orientalist hand-colored nudes that recall the odalisques and harem scenes of Ingres and Gerome would be a hoot if they didn't seem to take themselves so seriously.

Still, it's gratifying to see another local gallery evince an interest in photography, and one hopes that the momentum generated by this show will lead to others that are more consistent if more restricted in scope.

"Imagination's Vibrancy: Contemporary Photographs" continues at Galerie Francoise through May 31.

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