Whenever I begin to doubt the future of painted pictures, along comes a show that renews my faith in the medium's continuing vitality.
Just Paint, a group show of three Baltimore artists at Maryland Art Place, is a ringing endorsement of the art of painting in the contemporary era. In the work of Carolyn Case, Dan Randall and Gerald Ross, curator Patrick Burns has brought together a group of artists linked by a direct approach to putting paint on canvas and a common interest in re-examining the medium's past.
All three artists obviously take great delight in the modernist emphasis on materials and methods, though each draws different lessons from that tradition and arrives at quite different visual conclusions.
Randall's paintings of pin-up girls, hearts and birds crowned by stylized diadems have a retro look that harks back to the flamboyant pop culture imagery of the 1940s - the era immediately preceding the one that gave birth to Warhol's style in the 1960s.
It's the art that was pop before pop was cool.
Randall's approach is figurative, graphic and ecumenical in its influences, which range lightheartedly from wartime propaganda posters and commercial advertisements to '60s-era car culture, tattoos and underground comics.
These finely wrought works celebrate an exuberant, extended dialogue between high and low culture, between art and illustration, between the uniqueness of painting and the mass-produced imagery of mechanical reproduction.
Carolyn Case's large paintings alternately read like the interiors of rooms or the insides of packing crates, depending on how one interprets the ambiguous visual clues she offers viewers.
What few clues there are, however, more often relate to psychological space than to any sense of physical scale. From a distance, the paintings look flat and resemble nothing more complicated than rows of raw wooden planks nailed together.
Closer inspection reveals the painterly illusion of space; in a piece like "Rag Rug" (1999), for example, the illusion of interior space is actually heightened by the image of a scrap of fabric within the confining lumber walls.
In later paintings of the series, the whorls and knots of the wood grain emerge as independent motifs, signaling a new interest in pure pattern. Case's most recent paintings, completed after an artist's residency in southern India, are constellation-like patterns executed in gouache whose deliberate spatial ambiguities recall both the tradition of Asian landscape painting and the flat, imaginary space of Abstract Expressionism.
Of all the painters in this show, Gerald Ross seems the most directly influenced by Abstract Expressionism; astonishingly, he has made this now time-honored (and often cliched) 1950s style seem nearly as fresh and vibrant as it was when new.
Not being a painter, I can't quite put my finger on how Ross pulls off this remarkable sleight of hand, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with his exceptionally deft brushwork and fine eye for color values.
Curator Burns suggests Ross' debt to earlier painters like Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove, whose muted palettes, reductive images and minimal subject matter all tended away from painting as depiction toward painting as pure luminous object.
But in painting on this level, perhaps there's ultimately no possibility of any precise accounting for why something "works." One simply feels that it does or doesn't; to me, this works.
What Just Paint
Where: Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place, Suite 100
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through Dec. 28