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Going Native

Grace Hartigan Visits the Middle East on Canvas

The Middle East and North Africa of paintings such as "Tunisian Woman" exist more in Grace Hartigan's imagination than on the map.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 10/24/2001

Orientalism and Rococo: New Paintings and Watercolors and Different Directions: Paintings by James Voshell and mixed-media collages by Hubert Jacobs

Grace Hartigan, James Voshell, Hubert Jacobs

C. Grimaldis Gallery through Nov. 3

In her paintings, Grace Hartigan uses assertive black lines to outline figures, then vividly colors in and around them with washes, splashes, and drips of paint in a distinctive fusion of figuration and abstraction. This approach to painting has served her well as a distinguished second-generation abstract expressionist who made her name in New York in the 1950s and who has called Baltimore home since the early 1960s. She is currently enjoying an exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, another show at the ACA Galleries in New York, and a retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York's Purchase campus.

Hartigan's combination of firmness and fluidity ensures that her work seems lively rather than formulaic. Also helping to keep things fresh is her tendency to periodically turn to different subject matter. Her 2000 exhibit at Grimaldis, Aspects of the Far East, dealt mainly with kabuki actors and other images associated with Japanese and Chinese culture; it also featured several female subjects from the Middle East. Her new Grimaldis exhibit of paintings and watercolors, Orientalism and Rococo, is almost entirely set in North African and Middle Eastern locations that exist in Hartigan's imagination more than on the actual map.

When Hartigan's style is applied to Orientalist subject matter, the results evoke paintings done by Henri Matisse in the early 1910s, brightly exotic portraits and landscape scenes that were comprehensively showcased in the National Gallery of Art's 1990 exhibit Matisse in Morocco. Hartigan's debt to Matisse is keenly felt in "Tunisian Woman," in which sharp yet spare definitional lines are used for a woman who wears a somber masklike expression. This sort of painting relies on reductive figuration, a bold palette (witness the assertive red, yellow, and green used in the woman's blouse), sketchy-at-best background, and cultural references that don't push very deeply into that culture.

Although it's a beautiful work, it's also a bit troubling. Look at the woman's awkwardly painted hands. It's not just that they're anatomically improbable. The problem is that they neither tell us anything about the subject's presumed personality nor score brushwork-related points as examples of abstract-expressionist spontaneity. They merely seem hastily executed. If I seem to be needlessly wringing my hands over a few digits, there are several other paintings in the exhibit in which otherwise elegant imagery is marred by clawlike hands.

Perhaps the most impressive painting in the show, "Algerian Women" has a mostly white background as the neutral setting for an odalisque. Lounging in a sultry pose among several other similarly sketchy female figures, she really anchors the composition. A few sensuously curving lines and accents of color are all it takes to make this woman come alive. Although this painting relies on a parsimonious application of color, the colors really count. There are red and yellow stripes deployed for the clothing and textiles, for instance, and they possess the lovely clarity one finds in Matisse's North African-themed paintings. Hartigan's painting also contains some domestic props, prompting the thought that the women themselves anchor a serenely beautiful still-life composition.

Throughout the show, the most successful pieces adhere to a spare-yet-rich format. When Hartigan's paintings become more crowded, they're more uneven in quality. "Arabs and Horses" contains so many full or partial images of humans and horses that the composition looks like an overpopulated sketchbook. The painting gives your eyes plenty to consider, but all these figures seem randomly arranged. Also, seeing so many of them doesn't offer additional insights into the culture they're from--Hartigan riffs on cultural imagery rather than truly explores it.

The one crowded composition that works marvelously well also differs in theme and setting from the main body of the show. "Wateau's Musicians" presents three closely spaced musicians whose bodies and instruments merge. Hartigan's trademark black definitional lines are particularly impressive here, as is the subtle deployment of pink, pale green, and blue to induce a contemplative state in the viewer. The musicians' faces are both ardent and happy, which is how this exhibit at its best will leave you feeling.

Just down the street from the Grimaldis Gallery, the Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery's exhibit Different Directions pairs two artists, James Voshell and Hubert Jacobs, who are as unlike each other as they are unlike Hartigan.

Voshell made his name locally with urban paintings and Baltimore City murals done in a photo-realistic manner. He now lives in and depicts northern Baltimore County. In "The Yellow Window," he presents a highly believable depiction of the weathered wood exterior of a house. It's brightened by a yellow-painted window frame. Resting on the windowsill inside is a jar filled with field flowers. Voshell's other paintings of flowers, apples, barns, and butterflies are very well done, making one wish he'd exhibit more often.

Hubert Jacobs' mixed-media collages owe a lot to the assemblage art that Robert Rauschenberg started making more than 40 years ago. "Penny for Your Thoughts," whose elements include real pennies and old photographs, is typical of the way Jacobs combines everyday objects and presumably more personal memories. His assemblages are technically accomplished but seem overly derivative of earlier Pop art.

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