Clearing up some realist confusion

Images: An exhibit of pastel landscapes, while realist, ought not have been described as Photorealist.

Fine Arts

April 24, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

After seeing some of Anne Marie Fleming's pastel landscapes in a recent group show, I described her work as belonging to the Photorealist movement of the 1970s. I misspoke.

While Fleming's landscapes (currently on view at Steven Scott Gallery) look startlingly lifelike, it was probably misleading to characterize them in those terms. The difference is partly one of method.

Photorealists worked directly from photographs, whose images they project onto canvases and then meticulously trace and color exactly as the camera renders them. The intent is to replace the subjectivity of the artist's eye with the cool impersonality of the lens. Fleming is an "eyes only" artist, and although she constructs her landscapes with a hyper-realist attention to detail, the goal isn't impersonal objectivity but a deeper, more exact record of her subjective response. Nor is she averse to changing things around in her pictures when it suits her.

Since I'm in a mea culpa frame of mind, I might as well admit that the hardest thing for a critic to do is stand in front of an unfamiliar work of art and see it without preconceptions. We tend to want to understand the new in terms we already know, and it's all too easy to fall into the trap of letting one's mind tell one's eyes what they are seeing.

I wrote earlier that "Fleming's hyper-real landscapes are deeply felt" and that "they are compelling precisely because they don't look like conventional picture postcards." I should have trusted my eyes.

Having seen a wider range of Fleming's work in this one-woman show, I still think I got the judgment right - even if the reasoning was not.

Symbolic sculptures

The critic Clement Greenberg insisted that the problem of aesthetic judgment is first and foremost one of intuition. Our judgments, though shaped by knowledge and experience, are basically involuntary at the moment one confronts a work of art. We either "get it" or we don't, and that initial response forms the basis for all our subsequent reactions to the work.

I was reminded of Greenberg recently on viewing the sculptures of Brent Crothers at Galerie Francoise et Ses Freres. (The show runs through May 1.) Crothers' pieces, constructed mainly from wood and metal wire, have a sort of primitive energy independent of their nominal subject, which involves the mutual dependence between nature and humanity.

It's possible to "get" the gist of this meaning without resorting to the tortuous allegories (wire equals man, wood equals nature) some have employed to interpret this work. Besides being silly and forced, such efforts don't really do justice to the art, which conveys its meanings tentatively and suggestively.

At their best, as in such works as the ironically titled "Western Logic" - sections of a large, ancient tree corseted inside a welter of gleaming copper wires that evoke painful images of bondage and confinement - Crothers' pieces are wonderfully symbolic in the most expansive sense of that term. Symbols can have many meanings, whereas allegories mean only one thing.

Matisse symposium

Join scholars and curators from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art's symposium "The Poetics of Vision: An In-Depth Look at the Art of Henri Matisse." The event offers an intimate look at the life and work of one of the most celebrated artists in the museum's Cone Collection. Participants in the symposium will include Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling, art historian Jack Flam and BMA curators Jay Fisher and Katy Rothkopf.

Admission is $60 for most adults and $45 for BMA members; $35 for students and seniors. Advanced registration is required. For information, call 410-396-6001.

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