Elegant equines

ART

Horse paintings stir something inside the viewer

Art Column

April 09, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun art critic

Not for nothing were the horses painted by Franklin B. Voss called noble steeds. They were magnificent animals, well-muscled, fast, sleek as racecars and groomed to a fare-thee-well. Even when the horses are standing still, you sense speed is in their blood.

Voss was America's premier equine artist during the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when he painted such renowned racing champions as Man o' War, War Admiral, Citation, Whirlaway and Seabiscuit. In Voss' characterful images, their personalities come across as vividly as those of any human subject.

You can see them all in The Voss Family: Artists of American Sporting Life, a stellar exhibition of equestrian paintings organized by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that opens Friday at the Maryland Historical Society.

This is a show for just about anybody who loves looking at beautiful horses, and who doesn't? Writer Alice Walker once titled a book of poems Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, which pretty much sums up this sparkling show.

Even if you don't know a fetlock from a forelock, there's something stirring about Voss' paintings of spirited animals and their elegant riders effortlessly vaulting fences across shimmering landscapes of forest, field and cloud-flecked sky.

Voss was a devoted sportsman who regularly rode to hounds across Maryland's horse country north of Baltimore, and his pictures capture the excitement of the hunt, as well as the true horseman's - and horsewoman's - empathy with their mount.

Ever since the 2003 movie Seabiscuit, the story of how Man o' War's scrawny grandson beat War Admiral, the odds-on favorite (and Man o' War's sleekest son), in a historic 1938 prize match at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, I've been a fan of the legendary little champion who was all heart.

In Voss' portrait, Seabiscuit ambles down the track in what seems a most desultory fashion, guided by his scrappy jockey, Red Pollard. Compared to War Admiral's larger, more muscular frame, on view in the painting beside it, Seabiscuit and Pollard appear curiously tentative and detached, with hardly a hint of the fiercely combative spirit that drove both horse and rider to unparalleled victory.

The show also includes paintings, watercolors, pastels and sculpture by other members of Voss' large, artistically gifted family, all of whom eventually settled in Maryland.

Throughout his career, Voss also painted the hounds who accompanied the hunt; a selection of his winsome canine portraits provides the coda to this bracing exhibition.

The Voss Family: Artists of American Sporting Life runs Friday through July 27 at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Call 410-685-3750 or go to www.mdhs.org.

Big stores, big photos

Is that the shopping center called Towson Marketplace? Could be, but the scene might as well be anywhere in America, the homogenized, one-size-fits-all vernacular architecture of contemporary consumer society.

Sofia Silva's large-scale panoramic photographs of big-box stores, parking garages and chain motels, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, are meditations on the landscape of desire, where people spend their lives shopping for food, clothing, electronic appliances and love.

Her images are both deeply familiar and oddly disturbing. One can't quite believe one knows these locales so well. Their blank, utilitarian facades signify nothing so much as a vast spiritual emptiness.

It's a sadly attenuated vision of the American dream whose house brands are loneliness and ennui, served up with dollops of busywork and chilly cheer. Argentine native Silva brings a cultural anthropologist's eye to the megaliths of American business, such as Sam's Club and Wal-Mart, and finds that the lifestyle they proffer is as banal as the stores' big-box walls.

Sofia Silva: Panoramic Photographs runs through April 26 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or go to cgrimaldisgallery.com.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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