At Grimaldis, calming influences

Fine Arts

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

After an Artscape weekend chockablock with exhibits of hectic postmodern eclecticism, the "Summer 2000" show at C. Grimaldis Gallery seems to have been assembled with an almost classical sense of calm and order.

Grimaldis' summer show is traditionally a group exhibition devoted to the artists represented by the gallery, so there are many familiar names on view: painters Grace Hartigan, Eugene Leake, Raoul Middleman and Karl Connolly; sculptors Jon Isherwood and John Ruppert; and photographers Neil Meyerhoff, Alberto Korda, James Dusel and Christopher Myers.

The show also includes a pair of penetrating lithographic portrait prints by American painter Alice Neel, as well as one of her large cityscape oil paintings, "107th and Broadway" (1976), which depicts the building across the street from her studio in New York, and whose foreboding blue shadows Neel described as pictorial harbingers of her death in 1984. Given the enigmatic imagery and conceptual obscurity of so much contemporary art that aspires to cutting edge status, it's somewhat of a relief that many works here are largely representational and figurative.

Even when the subjects mutate into strange and unexpected forms of familiar objects, such as Hartigan's frolicsome but barely decipherable "Plastic Animals" (1991) or Leake's smoky night landscapes, "Night Silos With Sunset" (1999) and "Purple Silos, Night" (2000), these pictures rarely violate the unspoken compact between artist and viewer that a painting is basically an image wanting to be recognized.

Still, one of the most powerful pieces in the show is a print by sculptor Richard Serra that honestly cannot be described as anything other than pure abstraction. Titled "Bessie Smith," the work is actually a large, one-color etching that resembles either a spatter-painted cross-section of some ancient tree trunk or a thick, circular slab of black-painted cast iron.

In other words, despite its suggestive title, it doesn't look anything like the singer Bessie Smith or any other person for that matter. Granted, the piece evinces a certain massive stolidity and bulk that some might associate with the indomitable spirit projected by Smith and the other great blues divas of her era. But those qualities are conveyed by purely abstract forms; there is nothing in the print itself that remotely resembles the person referred to in the title.

Serra, of course, is primarily known for his enormous, welded-steel outdoor sculptures such as the famous "Tilted Arc." The piece was commissioned for a government office building in New York, but later was dismantled and removed when office workers complained that the sculpture was ugly and an environmental hazard.

For obvious reasons, Grimaldis has never exhibited a Serra sculpture. "Tilted Arc" would dwarf the entire block on which the gallery is located, and the last time a Serra was exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, the heavy piece sank clear through the floor, killing a bystander.

So it's perhaps just as well the artist is represented here by this featherweight (by comparison) abstraction. It certainly conveys the idea of a powerful mass without endangering either the architecture or visitors to the gallery.

A small gem in the show is photographer James Dusel's palladium print of the Greek-style columns on the facade of the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry building at 39th and Charles streets. In general, I'm not a fan of archaic printing techniques - too often they seem merely excuses for displays of empty virtuosity. But Dusel's architectural views strike me as careful, meditative studies of the classical aesthetic. These forms seem as fresh and beautiful as they were when they first appeared some 2,500 years ago.

C. Grimaldis Gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. Summer hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information, call 410-539-1080.

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