Politics, art make strange bedfellows


April 26, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In an era of aggressive postmodern deconstruction, artworks are as likely to take the form of political and ideological arguments as they are to represent objects of special visual interest.

Patriot, the current show at the Contemporary Museum, is long on polemics and short on eye appeal, but because it is all-too-characteristic of a current strand of ambitious art-making, it deserves a careful look.

The show purports to examine the phenomenon of nationalism, one of the driving political ideologies of the 19th century. Then, the issue was usually framed either in terms of shared ethnic, cultural or geographical attributes that defined a "people," or in terms of common civic values that constituted citizenship. In both cases, the effect was to divide society into "insiders" and "outsiders," usually to the latter's detriment.

The two world wars of the 20th century, as well as countless smaller but no less deadly regional conflicts, have given nationalism a bad name; in a globalizing economy, nationalistic ideologies are seen as unfortunate atavistic reversions to a more primitive principle of social organization. Yet nationalism remains a powerful force - for good and evil - in many parts of the world, while the conflicts it threatens to provoke are, in an age of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, potentially more catastrophic than ever.

Patriot poses the question: "Why has nationalism, prophesied by figures as diverse as Karl Marx, Arjun Appadurai and Antonio Negri as obsolete, re-emerged in seemingly robust and aggressive forms today?"

For an answer, the show looks to the work of nine artists and collectives whose works are expressions of their political engagement. They include 16 Beaver Group, a New York-based collective that produces radical literature, South African artist Simon Allen, who examines the indoctrination of young people with patriotic sentiments through children's trading cards, and Big Noise, a collective that made a film about Mexico's Zapatista peasant rebellion.

Art, however, is generally a poor substitute for political philosophy, and most of these works suffer a certain intellectual incoherence as soon as they start trying to explain the problems they address. Artworks, the late Mark Rothko argued, are embodiments of ideas about the world in sensuous terms; but by definition arguments - about politics or whatever - are wholly abstract. That is why the ideologizing impulse invariably seems to produce dull art.

But see the show and draw your own conclusions. Some may find this project exciting; in any case, whatever the merit of the works as art, if they prompt contemplation of some of the thornier issues of human existence on our crowded planet they may be said to have served some useful purpose.

The show runs through June 11. On May 4, at 7 p.m., the museum will present the next installment in its continuing series of talks, Art of the Last 10 Minutes. Board chairman Michael Salcman will discuss "The End of a Signature Style" and executive director Thom Collins will speak on "Postmodernism and Identity Politics."

The museum is at 100 W. Centre St. Hours are Thursday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Call 410-783-5720.

Middleman show

In contrast to the dilemmas of postmodernism, there's no confusion whatever about the aims of Raoul Middleman, an artist who has spent the past four decades exuberantly celebrating the sensuous delights of paint.

Middleman's newest show, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, brings together the two forms through which Middleman has expressed himself most consistently over the years: portraiture and landscape.

Half the show is taken up by Middleman's large-scale portraits of friends and acquaintances, executed in the loose, blowsy style that has become his signature.

Some of these portraits seem to skirt the edge of caricature, but Middleman's treatment of his subjects is always sympathetic; no matter how pronounced the distortions he introduces in these likenesses - including his own - the underlying mood is one of affection and great good humor.

The other half of the show presents Middleman's landscapes, which are divided about evenly between leafy Maryland locales and the Parisian landmarks the artist has visited during his frequent travels. The European subjects are easily recognizable by their elegant architecture and Old World charm, while the Maryland landscapes tend toward an Edenic view of Nature as untouched wilderness.

In these works, many of which are quite modestly scaled, Middleman employs a variety of media, from oil-on-canvas to works on paper in watercolor and gouache. Taken together, the works on display here are a concise summing up of Middleman's art that reveals the painter as a jocular, master colorist and a keen observer of our all-too-human flaws and foibles.

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