Lovely looks at nature


Artists approach natural world from varied angles

February 11, 2003

Nature and Abstraction, the three-artist exhibit at Resurgam Gallery in Federal Hill is not related to Vivat!, Baltimore's celebration of the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg, but it's one of the loveliest installations in town this month and certainly worth visiting if you're in the area.

The show features painter Benoit Pignon, sculptor Joseph Haviland and photographer Nellie Cauvin. Pignon and Cauvin are French artists whom curator Ruth Middleman met during travels with her husband, painter Raoul Middleman; Haviland is a Baltimore-area artist.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, the three artists are a remarkably good fit with one another.

Pignon's luminous, abstract canvases reminiscent of Rothko are meditative fields of color that seem to pulse and glow on the walls.

The painter, whose background includes stints as a technician and set designer for Paris theaters as well as documentary filmmaking, often incorporates crushed mineral pigments, powdered marble and sand affixed to the surface of his works. All the pieces in the present show date from 2001, when the artist retreated to the remote mountains of southeastern France to reconnect with nature and painting after a 15-year hiatus.

Joseph Haviland began sculpting wood in 1974 after a trip to Italy. His large, rough-hewn pieces, carved with a chainsaw from logs found deep in the woods, were inspired by his friendship with Raoul Hague, the reclusive wood sculptor who left New York City in 1943 and moved upstate to a cabin in Woodstock, N.Y., where he worked for the next 50 years until his death in 1993 at age 88. Haviland began visiting Hague in 1976 and continued to make the trip from Maryland to Woodstock every fall for the next 15 years.

Haviland's pieces emphasize the shapes and textures of the logs from which they are carved, and their polished surfaces are a metaphor for beauty of the life force which once animated the living wood.

Nellie Cauvin, a former champion figure skater and occupational therapist, once worked as a life model for Raoul Middleman's drawing classes in Provence. Her small color photographs of trees, water, flowers and fire are miniature landscapes framed in intense hues that recall the still-lifes of Paul Caponigro. She describes her work as "an inquiry into the world of forms and the spirit of nature, whose story appears encrypted everywhere."

This show, which runs through Feb. 28, is easy on the eye and soothing to the spirit. The gallery is at 910 S. Charles St. Hours are Thursday through Saturday noon to 6 p.m., and by appointment Call 410-962-0513.

Subconscious prints

British artist Chris Webster's show at Gallery International recalls the experiments of the surrealists of the first decades of the 20th century, when artists like Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali alternately shocked and titillated viewers with their "irrational juxtapositions" of subject matter drawn from fantasy and dreams.

Webster is a printmaker who explores his own subconscious through the technique of collage. His imagery is culled from historical photographs, magazines illustrations and 19th-century Victorian prints, which he alters and reworks to create strange, often unsettling pictures of contemporary states of mind.

As a printmaker, Webster works in a variety of media, including etching, oil on photolinen (in which images are projected onto a light-sensitive cloth, developed in a chemical bath, then embellished with paint) and toner transfer prints (a sophisticated form of photocopy).

Regardless of the technique, Webster's aim is to make visible the subconscious obsessions, fears and desires that motivate human behavior, especially the human propensity for the bizarre, the forbidden and the transgressive.

Many of these works are extremely modest in scale, often measuring no more than 4 or 5 inches on a side, and most are monochrome black-and-white. Yet they can pack a big emotional charge, especially when they address themselves to the age-old problem of evil, a subject the artist returns to repeatedly in this show.

In Cyclope (god observes), for example, the figure of the loving Christian god is transformed into a nightmare vision of pagan amorality, symbolized by the one-eyed Cyclops of Homeric legend. Webster's Cyclops is far closer to the 18th-century prophet-poet William Blake's "Ancient of Days," the dehumanized god Urizen who "inscribes metal books of laws with an iron pen," than he is to the benevolent Jehovah of Michelangelo.

Similarly, in Rule of Thelma, a photograph of Czech partisans executed by the Nazis is juxtaposed with a production still from a Hollywood war movie to produce a disturbing commentary on the difference between real violence, death and despair and their sentimental cinematic counterparts.

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