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Ruth Channing's Fascinating, Frustrating Work Inaugurates the Newly Expanded Craig Flinner Gallery

Camera Obscure: Ruth Channing's "Woman With Camera" calls on a patterned background so subtle it hardly registers.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 3/12/2003

Etchings and Paintings by Ruth Channing

Ruth Channing

Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery through April 30

It looks like Craig Flinner is taking over the 500 block of North Charles Street. But in fact, Flinner's empire is just shifting slightly. As the renovation dust settles, the longtime gallery owner will have relinquished the southernmost of four adjacent storefronts on that street and moved into the northernmost. There he will have a new home for his threefold enterprise: his antiques gallery, his contemporary art gallery that he began three years ago, and his collection of vintage prints and posters that has been the core of his business since he opened on this block in 1986.

"There are people who have contemporary paintings in their living room and Victorian prints in their guest bedroom," Flinner says of the customers for his operation.

For Flinner, all this shifting around nets him 10 percent more square footage for his business; for gallerygoers, though, the big news is the improved contemporary gallery. Formerly occupied by the Steven Scott Gallery, which recently relocated to Owings Mills, the space provides an open, well-lit setting for Ruth Channing's exhibit of etchings and mixed-media paintings.

Channing's show is a fascinating but sometimes frustrating outing from an artist whose subject matter remains consistent and yet whose media change. She's on secure ground when she makes etchings and acrylic paintings, but the results can be more problematic when she moves into mixed-media works, whose ingredients include ink, sand, silk, linen, and lace. This is generally a first-rate show, but sometimes the work on view sends out mixed signals.

A characteristically admirable etching is "Virgin and Unicorn With Harp." It presents Channing's strengths as a figurative artist: its schematic figures realized through the spare use of gracefully curving lines, its devotion to the nude female as icon, and its harmonious use of mythological wonder in the form of the unicorn, resting its head against the woman's virginal thighs.

Not that every composition is quite so gentle. The etching "Madrigali VIII (Girl Smoking)," with its tightly cropped face calling our attention to a woman's thick lips embracing a tightly held cigarette, has the intense devotion to a bad habit one expects from German Expressionist prints. In a similar acrylic painting, "Model Smoking," an open-robed woman is memorable for her jutting cigarette and long fingers.

Channing's paintings rely on black- or brown-outlined figures who are the center of attention. Unlike the etchings, however, which tend toward dark backgrounds, the paintings rely on more colorful washes and enough drips running down the canvas to constitute measurable precipitation. These brushed and dripped painterly passages not only back but sometimes partially obscure the figures. This approach works especially well in an acrylic painting such as "Eve," in which our eyes proceed from an arcing arm to the round apple it holds. Shades of yellow, orange, and green melt and drip like a semitropical paradise around and over this original woman, who seems content to be here alone without an Adam in sight. As in most paintings in the exhibit, form and formlessness co-exist quite happily here.

Most of the mixed-media paintings also score. The ink on antique linen "Crouching Women" presents two women whose sensuous curves evoke Picasso's classical phase in the early 1920s, painted on fabric with a ghosted floral pattern. Similarly effective is the ink, silk, and sand "Woman with Camera," in which a svelte woman with upraised arms on one side of the painting is complemented by a long-legged tripod and camera on the other. The printed silk has a floral motif so subdued that from a certain distance it hardly registers, and you just see the ivory-toned plane against which the woman and camera are positioned. By contrast, in the ink and silk "Woman Kicking," the background is an empty white expanse, but the silk itself features creases that register as if they were painted lines.

Channing's beautifully posed and zestfully moving women painted on silk are affirmative, cheerful, and colorful, but that's not the whole picture. Just as her etchings sometimes have an edgier quality, the paintings can be earthier, too. In the acrylic and sand "Cave Woman," a woman is partially obscured by golden brown hues that function in effect as what thousands of years would do to cave art. And the acrylic and sand "La Belle et la Bete" has an, er, sandy texture that the artist plays to thematic advantage. This painting's nubby surface suggests a physicality that seems appropriate for the juxtaposition of the earth-toned, brusquely outlined beast next to the beautiful woman's nubile pink form.

Combining so many materials doesn't always work, alas, as in two ballet-themed ink, silk, and lace paintings, "Ballet Couple" and "In the Wings," in which the dense surface texture seems to weigh the dancers down. Admittedly, these dancers are meant to be as physically forceful as they are agile. But unfortunately, the basic forms get lost in the material mix, and the dancers seem incapable of escaping the force of gravity. They don't necessarily need to soar, but with all that weight, they wouldn't even be able to rise up on their toes.

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