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Pressures of the Flesh

Seeing the body through the piercing eyes of Raoul Middleman

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/8/2009

Raoul Middleman: Custer's Last Stand and Other Painterly Obsessions

Through April 11 at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Go directly to the back of the C. Grimaldis Gallery when visiting this exhibition by Raoul Middleman. Do not stop to collect your thoughts about any of Middleman's recent paintings in the front gallery space. Do not get caught up in Middleman's mammoth 1967 painting "Custer's Last Stand," making its first public viewing since the late 1960s. No, if you want to glean some idea about Middleman's notions about of the body, color, and general outlook, head straight to Grimaldis' back room, where two walls have been salon-style covered with nearly two decades worth of the artist's self portraits.

Taking in floor-to-ceiling Middleman on Middleman--the installation is titled "Scraps of Self"--offers a good visual calibration from which to examine the oil paintings, watercolors, and works on paper exhibited here. This Ashburton native is a bit of a local institution, both for his provocatively prolific work--primarily traditional, including figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes--and for being a megawatt personality. A longtime MICA painting faculty member, Middleman's oil paintings--expressive strokes, a tight control over an earthy palette, a romantic tone slightly offset by a penetrating eye--become distinctive even if you haven't seen them before, so strongly does he articulate his old-fashioned sensibility in his works.

Custer's Last Stand and Other Painterly Obsessions better captures that sensibility than his 2007 Grimaldis exhibition, Pop to Plein-Air, which offered a version of Middleman's career as a begrudging pop artist turned neo-traditionalist. It's a trajectory that feels accurate, given that Middleman spent part of the 1960s in New York and painted a few flatly and garishly colored works, such as Pop's "Midnight Snack," that feel pop because they don't really feel anything else.

The majority of Middleman's work--an extremely tenuous statement, as its based on this writer only seeing Middleman works in galleries and permanent collections, not everything he has cranked out and stores in studio--adheres to the more conventional subject matter of people, places, and things, rendered in a superficially conventional manner. And it all starts with his look--what his eyes choose to see in his subject.

Thus, the self-portraits are a good place to start understanding how he sees the world when at the easel. And, according to his own eyes, Middleman's face naturally favors flat lips and a slightly tight jaw, his dark eyes bouncing between judgmental and dismissive (but never blank), his hair line recedes apace, and his ears jut from the side of his head like a fleshy pair of satellite TV antennas. It's a little intoxicating seeing this volume of modestly unflattering self-portraits, but their variations in size and age of the artist strongly conveys the consistency of his vision. His colors vary here and there according to what he's wearing, but since everything here is mostly a head shot against a muted background, they feel like they could have come from one marathon sitting were it not for the man's age subtly but visibly changing before your eyes, his flesh's sags and crevices articulated through a dizzying array of pigment sworls, brush line movements, and dramatic color juxtapositions.

In fact, just how sophisticatedly Middleman manipulates forms and colors is best witnessed in his watercolors and works on paper, where the frenetically economical means of his image creation is nakedly displayed. In the walnut ink, crayon, and acrylic on paper "Mamasita!" Middleman renders a man regarding a topless woman in a flurry of ink lines and color splashes. Examined closely these nebulous individual color markings--almost childish in their formlessness--are meaningless scribbles; in concert with the ink and other color splotches the eye tames them into blond hair, a blue jacket, ruby lips, blue eye shadow. Even more threadbare, in the walnut ink on paper "Hobo Rose" Middleman achieves a woman sitting on a man's lap through an epileptic seizure of quick lines and dark smudges.

Those random-feeling pools turn into natural wonders in his watercolors, where a wash of hues and some thin, meandering brushstrokes somehow conspire to create landscapes on a white page. These watercolors' minimal touches communicate a fleeting energy, as if the thin wash of blues could capture a moving sky or clumsy collision of green, yellow, and soft purple could somehow suggest wind-rustled foliage. In "Paria Trailway," Middleman's black smudges and fleeting lines create a tree sitting next to a landscape rendered in hectic, diaphanous puddles of sunflower yellow, fir green, brick red, sunset orange, and a murky purple that provides the illusion of nature's bounty.

Taken together, Middleman's blunt eye for viewing the human form and almost ephemeral techniques combine to make his portraits so bewilderingly memorable. Middleman appears to favor subject matter of working-class bohemia in his scenes depicting people, a feeling that strangely lends his works a mood of musty 1920s decadence. It's an elusive tone felt in his most recent oils here, such as the front gallery's diptych "St. George and the Dragon" and the female nude "The Offering." Middleman isn't as harshly carnal as Lucian Freud when painting the human body, but Middleman isn't a stylist of form, either. He paints what he sees--but he does so in his technically impressive juxtapositions of colors, seemingly haphazard brushwork, and an apparently conservative use of paint (his paintings look like they should be thickly layered, but up close they look less overworked). Flesh sags and dimples, road works of lines orbit mouths and eyes, and even the bare stomachs and thighs don't get toned into smooth surfaces. If these canvases feel a tad old fashioned, it is only because Middleman turns his dexterous skills to representing the gravitational pull of time's arrow on the body with a refreshing, nostalgic frankness.

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