Two artists `preserve' lost buildings

Exhibit: Nearly three dozen paintings are all that remain of parts of Baltimore's streetscape.


April 23, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The demolition of historic buildings is not necessarily a subject that many artists would want to commemorate.

Especially when campaigns have been waged to save buildings from the wrecking ball, any record of a demolition in progress can be a painful reminder of battles lost.

But Baltimore artists Greg Fletcher and Leslie Schwing have an ability to find beauty in destruction.

In paintings and drawings, they often document buildings either just before demolition occurs or while it's under way. In the process, they help others see the beauty that Baltimore loses when older buildings disappear.

"Vanishing Points: Disappearing Baltimore Views" is the title of a show of 35 of their works now at the Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery. Each offers a glimpse of Baltimore as it undergoes transition.

Some of their subjects have received public attention, such as the arched facade of the old Merchants and Miners Transportation Company building at Light and Redwood streets, torn down for a hotel, or Missy's Showbar on The Block, which was razed to make way for an office building.

Others are less well-known Baltimore rowhouses and streetscapes that stood for decades but have been leveled in the name of urban renewal - or given a different appearance through renovation.

The artists, who are a couple, often focus on sections of working-class Baltimore that outsiders rarely see. Their work is the flip side of the picture-postcard views of Mount Vernon Place or the Inner Harbor, frozen in time as if they will stay the same forever.

"Baltimore is going through its great renaissance, which has translated into `Tear down the old, bring in the new,' " Fletcher said. "I wasn't interested in the usual landmarks that were well taken care of. I was more interested in painting the working-class people and their dwellings, which is where I feel my roots are. ... That's what I relate to."

They don't necessarily set out to document endangered places before they're gone. They say they sometimes just focus on subjects that appeal to them, such as the wooden steps of a house on East Baltimore Street, and return later to find they're no longer there.

"I don't often realize that a view is disappearing when I choose it," Schwing said. "What attracts me has more to do with the feeling of an opening in space. Then, many times, later I go back and find that the view is gone. There is a special potency in something right before it dies or disappears. During the last moments to be noticed, a place or object offers up everything to you if you are there to perceive it."

Fletcher, 48, and Schwing, 49, met several years ago at a gallery opening for Schwing and discovered they admired each other's work. They eventually began to go on "artists' dates," working side by side to depict the same subjects in a variety of media - oil, pastel, pencil, charcoal, crayon. Fletcher had been painting Baltimore streetscapes for more than 20 years. Schwing had been painting and drawing from a more internal landscape but was happy to accompany Fletcher. They began to influence each other. Sometimes they even collaborate on the same piece of art.

The work on display is not overly nostalgic or sentimental. It does not glorify destruction, either. If anything, it depicts demolition as part of the natural growth cycle of a city.

One of the most revealing aspects of the exhibit is the way it shows the different approaches two artists can take to the same subject - vacant buildings on the south side of 1400 block of East Baltimore St., shortly before they were demolished.

In a succession of oil paintings executed from 1997 to 1999, titled "Ghost Series," Fletcher captures the buildings with strong lines and vivid colors. He strips away architectural details and personifies the buildings with anthropomorphic features. They have a droopy body language that makes them seem like old men leaning against each other, in conversation. In "Crows," their cornice lines cast long shadows that evoke the beak of a bird, or is it the tail feathers?

As the series progresses, the houses become more simplified. The windows begin to disappear. The details become reduced and, eventually, the play of light on a colorful surface becomes the main feature.

Fletcher likens the process to the aging of human beings. As a sense of loss begins to prevail, he says, a more spiritual, meditative approach to life begins to evolve. He equates this to the wisdom achieved in old age, when extraneous complexities are shed to expose the essence of a person. He also sees the demolition process itself as a metaphor for the closing stages of life. "I realized that as a thing dies, it simplifies," he said. "The absence of windows represents a closing off of the outside."

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