No velvet touches for Shore's paintings


Artist places members of his family and models in honest, if inky, realism

Critic's Corner// Art


For more than a decade, Baltimore native Tony Shore has made members of his large, extended family in the city's Pigtown neighborhood the subjects of his signature realistic paintings on black velvet, a material he associates with his working-class origins and the tastes it inspired in his youth.

His most recent paintings, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, are an extension of earlier work in which the artist rendered his family members in domestic settings -- watching TV, doing housework, sitting on the steps outside their homes -- with remarkable sensitivity both to their personal dignity and to the artistic possibilities of the oil on black velvet medium, which in his hands allows colors to float out of the inky background like luminous bubbles of illusionary space. (Another show of Shore's works, Back in Black: 10 years of Velvet Paintings, is at the Creative Alliance.)

Shore has always worked from photographs of the scenes he portrays, which enables him to subtly alter the composition and colors of his paintings while retaining the sense of documentary verisimilitude that suggests these are real people in real situations.

In the new work, however, Shore has departed from a simple one-to-one correlation between image and reality. Some of these works portray staged situations, for which the artist has employed models to represent individuals in scenes that may or may not have played out precisely as described in the paintings.

Some of the earlier works alluded to the rawer aspects of Pigtown life, such as minor run-ins with the law or substance abuse. One earlier painting, for example, depicted a tough-looking female acquaintance of one of Shore's relatives who may have worked as a prostitute.

The painting Date (2005) in the current show also seems to suggest a potentially illicit love. A man and woman sit in a dimly lit, cheaply furnished motel room whose walls are pocked with sexually explicit graffiti left by previous occupants.

The man reclines on the bed, while the woman squats awkwardly on the floor fiddling with the corkscrew for a bottle of wine she is about to open. The whole scene, which emerges out of a velvety blackness that seems as morally ambiguous as it is optically obscure, has the tawdry aura of an adulterous affair or a hooker with her john. Even the title Date reads like a euphemism.

Shore's relative in the painting is the same man whose female acquaintance was the subject of the earlier picture. But the woman in the new work is a model Shore hired, not a prostitute. The artist says he wanted to explore the aesthetic possibilities of such a scene without implicating either himself or his relative in an illegal activity.

One might question what distinction there is between painting a simulation of an immoral act and painting the real thing. Certainly one can't tell just from looking whether the scene is staged or real.

Shore's rationale seems to be that there are limits to what he can portray about his family's daily lives without violating an implicit trust that he will not subject them to embarrassment or ridicule. He tells enough for us to know that his people aren't perfect -- who is? -- but regarding the details, some things probably are better left unsaid.

Because Shore paints from photographs, many of his images have the ambiguous, unstable meaning of their original medium. In a painting titled Booper's House (2005), for example, we see the artist's parents, aunts and uncles standing outside at night in the yard of his cousin Booper's home.

As it turns out, the occasion was a serious illness in the family, hinted at in the painting by the presence of a priest among the group. But we can't really be sure what is happening; the painting communicates its sense of foreboding wholly through a mood of anxious, nocturnal anticipation and the harsh, vaguely ominous glow of the home's back-door porch light.

Shore's exhibition at the Creative Alliance covers works from the early 1990s until quite recently and suggests a steady evolution from what was essentially a caricaturist to an accomplished American realist painter in total control of his materials. The Grimaldis show formally welcomes him into the ranks of Baltimore's acknowledged masters.

New Paintings, at C. Grimaldis, runs through March 25. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080. Back in Black: 10 years of Velvet Paintings runs through April 8 at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-1651.

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