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Nap of the Earth

Plunging Into 10 Years Of Tony Shore’s Velvet Undergrounds

Tony Shore’s “After The Hunt” Features a Dog, But It Isn’t Playing Poker.

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/15/2006

The black velvet paintings of Pigtown-born and -bred, Ivy League-educated artist Tony Shore have always straddled the fence between high-class and lowbrow. Over the past 10 years, Shore’s style has changed dramatically, evolving from bulbous, cartoonish depictions of his friends and neighbors into subtle, hyper-realistic portraits of blue-collar Baltimore life.

This month, the Creative Alliance and C. Grimaldis Gallery celebrate Shore’s work, focusing equal attention on his status as a critically acclaimed painter and his reputation as a man of the people. He’s maintained strong ties to his Pigtown heritage and gives back to the community through his popular Access Art after-school program for city youth. Taken together, these two exhibits provide a comprehensive survey of Shore’s prolific career, and two very different ways to experience his work.

It’s fitting that the CA’s retrospective, Back in Black, eschewed the typical wine-and-cheese art opening in favor of a Natty Boh and macaroni salad party for Shore’s family and friends. Easily filling the CA’s massive gallery, the velvet paintings in Black transform the space into a church of Baltimore kitsch and culture, spanning the last decade of Shore’s career.

Shore’s early works used the black-velvet medium as a vehicle for satire. People are rendered as grotesque caricatures of themselves, warts and all, and his fabric canvases are often completely saturated in paint. During this period, Shore appears to be more interested in the sociocultural implications of using black velvet—the trashy Elvis and jungle-animal associations evoked by the fabric—than the surface’s unique possibilities. His 1995 “The Last Supper” is a parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting, substituting an overweight mensch in a happiness is being hammered T-shirt for Jesus Christ. Bathed in the bluish light of a foil-antennaed TV screen, his disciples gather around the detritus of a junk-food feast, clutching Pabst and Bud cans. A velvet painting of a bullfighter hangs above one man’s shoulder, and Shore’s penchant for realism is evident even amid the caricature, as he pulls no punches in depicting the men’s pudgy beer bellies and greasy faces. As satire goes, this is fairly facile, but the sheer scale and humor of the piece makes it one of his strongest early works.

Another early winner is “The Venus of Sowebo,” a piece that parodies Old Masters’ nudes by replacing the classical femme with an overweight housewife, reclining voluptuously on a ratty striped sofa while her child wheels around in a baby chair in the background. Again, the joke here is very obvious, and Shore’s technique is still finding its legs. “Downinnayard,” a massive 1996 work
displayed at the back of the gallery, offers some early indications of Shore’s eventual move toward a more realistic style. Set next to a backyard pool, “Downinnayard” depicts a familiar family gathering, complete with cigarettes, clutched beer cans, and struggling children. Instead of relying on the
bulbous, cartoonish style of “The Last Supper,” these people are real and believable uncles, aunts, and cousins, and Shore makes better use of his color choices, exploiting the iridescent properties that black velvet lends to light blue paint with the swimming
pool water.

The most interesting aspect of the CA exhibit is the opportunity to see characters recur throughout Shore’s body of work, and to contrast his early efforts with his more current, minimalist style, where the exaggeration is less overt. All the low-rent connotations of black velvet are intact, but working-class street scenes, interiors, and portraits are rendered with humanity and real feeling, not goofy, overwrought parody. The contrast between two portraits of Shore’s Aunt Nellie is particularly arresting. In 1996’s “Aunt Nellie,” the woman is voluminous and grinning in a blue muumuu, the undisputed queen of a potato-chip and soda-soaked family cookout. This painting is bright and lively, an image of a family icon in her element. Shore’s newer portrait of Nellie, 2003’s “Aunt Nellie’s Door,” shows Shore’s growing ability to manipulate velvet’s intense properties of light and shadow. Painted using only varying shades of blue acrylic, this work reveals only the faintest outline of Nellie’s gray hair and drooping chins as she stands beside a slatted door, waiting. The rest of her body, her chair, and her room are subsumed in the perfect pitch-black shadow of untouched velvet. As in many of his newer works, Shore has learned that a scene’s unrevealed elements can be almost as compelling as the parts he paints.

This recent creative revelation threads through all of the works on display at C. Grimaldis Gallery. Both the tone of the exhibit and that of Shore’s newer paintings feel more reserved than the CA’s exuberant, overwhelming collection. New Paintings features just 12 works created within the past three years and finds Shore playing more and more with large, untouched expanses of blackness with varying degrees of success. His newer works tend to be either very small or expansively large. Drug deals and illicit meetings in motel rooms are recurrent motifs.

“Blue Star Motel” falls in the former category on both counts and finds Shore playing with green in a manner very similar to that employed in “Aunt Nellie’s Door.” A hooded figure and a bare-chested man stand under a bare fluorescent tube light, bathed in its sickly green light. As in his other new works, Shore relies on the barest suggestion of walls and floors, allowing his canvases’ mysterious blackness to hint at his characters’ surroundings. This technique works best in his smaller works—larger, longer paintings like “Card Players,” which concentrates all color and action at one side of the piece, feel unbalanced, with the blank side of the canvas translating as wasted space. Sometimes it does work—“Booper’s House” presents a similar composition in a vertical format, using the huge expanse of black as the night sky above a gathering of laughing friends—but you can only use that trick so many times.

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