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The Tell-Tale Art

Two new BMA exhibits get at what we get out of the work of Edgar Allan Poe

Courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Albert Hahn, Jr. Enverborgalles Tusschen de Balken, illustration for Edgar Allan Poe, Fantastische Vertellingen van Edgar Allan Poe (Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1930), p. 64

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/28/2009

Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon and Baltimore Inspired by Poe run through Jan. 17, 2010. The public

Loneliness isn't easy to convey visually. Too often, the attempt involves a trite solitary figure against a background, or a figure depicted in some clich?d pose (i.e., sitting, knees drawn up to chest, head down). Tonya Gregg takes a completely different approach with her black-and-white abstract piece "The Ritual of Public Service." In it, Gregg depicts a mound made up of an arrangement of dots and dashes, as if a jumbled pile of Morse code. Atop it rests a muddled puddle of black ink-cloud? specter? some other unknown?-that appears to bear down on the mound with a nefarious menace. Above the ink blot floats an inchoate gray shadow, as if exhaust trails or storm cloud. The entire simple image elicits a peculiar unease, familiar yet imprecise. The wall text reports that Gregg intended the piece to be "an allegory of how we are ever more available and public through technology and social web sites, but not necessarily more connected to others." Not exactly the idea or even mood you may feel when looking at it, but this approaches the overall, lingering tenor of the image.

"The Ritual of Public Service" is one of 27 pieces of community-generated art included in the Art on Purpose-curated exhibition Baltimore Inspired by Poe currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the sister program to the BMA's Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon, curated by BMA Director Doreen Bolger. Icon is a sly, oblique approach to the recent Poe festivities dotting the Baltimore landscape, exploring less Poe in visual art than the emotional pull of Poe's themes in visual art. As such, Baltimore Inspired by Poe is a handy vernacular introduction to Icon, gathering as it does a group of local artists and citizen's responses to some themes charted in Icon, as labeled in the galleries: love and loss, fear and terror, madness and obsession.

These community artworks-made during workshops at four different Enoch Pratt library branches earlier this year-simply offer more immediate responses to the idea. They're more urban in their temperament-including street scenes and fears-less polished in their execution, and more raw in their emotional reservoirs. Yes, that means some teeter into the maudlin and/or obvious-and some are downright pedestrian-but they go there honestly, and look like little stands in the way on the journey from idea to imagery.

These pieces are a helpful calibration, because they're refreshingly unpolished and non-commercial takes on Poe, a writer firmly entrenched in the public consciousness and one of Baltimore's standby cultural products. The city feels to have always been in the Poe business (Baltimore boasts his grave, Sir Moses Ezekiel's statue, the Poe house museum, the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore [eapoe.org], the effing football team), and this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, that industry is exceptionally busy (witness baltimoresun.com/entertainment/poe and nevermore2009.com). And Halloween and its assortment of the usual local Poe-specific events offers an easy calendar time-peg for considering the writer who died here in 1849.

That very seasonal association is what Icon assays. Nothing concrete ties Poe to Halloween save the thematic universe of his work: How you feel during/after reading his stories and poems is what suggests his kinship with Oct. 31's so-called creepy, crawly holiday. That's why "The Raven" appears on Halloween.com (halloween.com/story-the-raven.php): We've culturally manufactured this connection.

So while Icon doesn't particularly require much heavy-lifting (it's an easily digested exhibition with broad appeal), it thankfully doesn't stoop into the prosaic, and includes some truly standout pieces. What's most striking is to see how artists choose to respond to Poe's works and ideas. While similar, they're never uniform even when tackling the same subject matter. Antonio Frasconi's 1959 color woodcut "The Raven," with its bold lines and confident lettering, looks more like a political poster/contemporary indie poster than the stylized birds offered by ?douard Manet or even Jim Dine's softground etching and woodcut.

And the best place to witness that variety in visual vocabulary is in the illustrations that appear in the more than 40 books included as part of the exhibition. Poe's popularity, especially in Europe, over the years ensured that his works were consistently in print, and his evocative language and provocative plots provided illustrators with ample primers for visual ideas, ranging from literal depictions of scenes cribbed from his stories (such as "The Pit and the Pendulum") to more dramatic imaginings of Poe's universe. Two illustrations from Ernst Heinrich Conrad Schnitte included here are startlingly psychological, involving the stark black-and-white contrasts and oblique lines and forms of German Expressionist cinema.

It's the abstract images from both shows that burrow deepest into the brain. Icon includes two Robert Motherwells on loan from New York's Dedalus Foundation, "Poe's Abyss" and "Monster" (both 1975), which vibrate with more agitation and unease than Motherwell's canvases usually do. It's a nonspecific restlessness echoed in two works by very young people in Inspired, 8-year-old Rose Bridger's "Love" and Quazelle Johnson's untitled piece. That's not to imply that these pieces exist on the same qualitative plain, merely that the feel to unfurl from a similar region of the unconscious, a primitive place where dark, chthonic impulses hide-uncanny ores that Poe's work continues to mine.

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