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Stare Master

Grace Hartigan Continues to Examine The Present Through History's Prism

PUCKISH: Grace Hartigan's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

By Kate Noonan | Posted 12/26/2007

Grace Hartigan: New Painting

At C. Grimaldis Gallery through Jan. 5

Marking the close of its 30-year anniversary, the C. Grimaldis gallery exhibits recent works by one of Baltimore's best-loved and most highly regarded artists, Grace Hartigan. One of the first women to achieve success in the male dominated abstract-expressionist movement of the 1940s and '50s, today Hartigan is a deeply influential painter whose impact permeates the local art scene due in large part to her long-held role as the graduate director of the Hoffberger School of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art.

In her latest solo exhibition, New Painting, Hartigan continues to explore several of the themes that have come to characterize the bulk of her work since the 1970s. New Painting shows brides, starlets, and, most notably, the art-historical paintings that have come to be expected from her, rendered in thick gestural black outlines over sheer washes of oil on linen.

In her role as MICA teacher, Hartigan continues to emphasize the importance of art history in an overall art education, and her work could, at first glance, be considered unoriginal or perhaps even outright plagiarism. When considered in the context of art history, though, Hartigan reveals her true complexity. She borrows from the tradition of academic painting, in which artists carefully copied works of the Old Masters before embarking on their own creative endeavors. But in doing so, she transforms her role from perennial student to perhaps a master in her own right, imparting her visual vocabulary onto the iconic paintings of the past and creating a collaborative work with the original artist. Unlike the masterworks that serve as her model, Hartigan's interpretations are proudly imperfect; she makes her process evident, leaving faint records of her own ideas, mistakes, and challenges through translucent layers of paint.

Standing out among a sea of women is the exhibition's sole male portrait, "Blue Memling Man," taken from the well-known painting "Portrait of a Man With a Coin of the Emperor Nero," by Northern Renaissance painter Hans Memling. Simply drawn and flatly monochromatic, "Blue Memling Man" could easily be a cartoonish copy and, like her other art-historical works, might be considered irrelevant in today's climate. But Hartigan has always drawn inspiration from the culture around her, and the question remains why such a pivotal artist would simply make second-rate copies of old paintings to assert the importance of art history alone. Perhaps her choice of subject is not entirely antiquated. "Blue Memling Man" depicts a young nobleman holding a coin, which, you can learn from the original, bears the profile of the notorious Emperor Nero, who was fabled to play his fiddle as he watched Rome burn. Perhaps "Blue Memling Man" serves the dual purpose of inciting its viewer to investigate the artwork behind the art and as a commentary on today's political landscape.

In addition to the art-historical paintings that dominate the exhibition, Hartigan continues to progress with other ongoing subjects, including the icons first portrayed in her series of paper dolls inspired by Tom Tierney's book Glamorous Movie Stars of the Thirties. In New Painting, she raises questions about racial and sexual stereotypes by depicting several actresses who were celebrated for their "exotic" sensuality. Two dynamic images of minority women draw you in with their bold colors and dripping surfaces. The crimson and gold-washed "Maria Montez" conjures the fiery sensuality of a hot-blooded Latin seductress, while the nude tones that compose "Josephine Baker" allude to the former burlesque performer's erotic "Danse Sauvage." The graphic quality of the outlined figures and their names emblazoned on solid-colored backgrounds recall art deco advertisement posters, but as with her art-historical interpretations, Hartigan asserts her presence by undoing the precise flatness of the surface. By allowing paint to drip down the canvas, Hartigan creates an effect that is at once sultry and sinister, marring the perfect beauty that brought these women fame in their own time.

New Painting also features eight smaller works on paper, most of which are still lifes rendered in watercolor and sumi ink, along with a few oil pastels and a charcoal drawing. While they lack the dynamic quality that makes Hartigan's starlet paintings so powerful, they reveal another, more intimate side of her work and exemplify the style of drawing she famously employs in paint. Her still lifes clearly show the enduring influence of Henri Matisse's color palette and use of line on her vocabulary, but also assert Hartigan's own virtuosity as a colorist.

Although not entirely new, New Painting successfully uses the past to present a relevant commentary on contemporary life while continuing to tackle pop-culture themes that have typified Hartigan's work for more than 30 years. It's quite fitting that Grimaldis concludes his anniversary year with this exhibition, commemorating his lasting collaboration with Baltimore's very own Old Master.

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