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Edifice Complex

Painting a Picture of the City's Enduring Buildings

Scott Ponemone’s 1999 watercolor "Homewood—Fanlight"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/20/2001

Scott Ponemone's Baltimore: The Interplay of Art & Architecture

Scott Ponemone

Evergreen House and Homewood House Museum through Sept. 30

Scott Ponemone knows that a great building is the sum of its great parts. The Baltimore artist has done a series of 43 watercolors in which he focuses on the parts that make up such notable local structures as the Hampton Mansion, Lloyd Street Synagogue, First Unitarian Church, and Basilica of the Assumption. His work assumes that you can know a building¹s design by studying its cornice, or that you can discern a table¹s character by looking closely at one of its carved legs.

Most of his exhibit is installed in a building depicted in his work, Evergreen House, with a smaller selection at Homewood House Museum. It's a smart strategy on the part of the exhibit's curator, former Sun art critic John Dorsey--your eyes are encouraged to roam from the paintings to the rooms around you. Ponemone's watercolors almost never show entire buildings; rather, they rely on playful combinations of the individual sites' architectural and decorative motifs, so it's useful to turn from the artist's fragmentary and fanciful representations to look at the real thing.

However whimsical Ponemone's compositions become, they always retain an accurate sense of pattern and design. Where he does take liberties is with his palette. He often uses colors you won't find in these buildings and their furnishings. Factually bold designs and subjectively bold colors prompt your eyes to follow every turn in a chair leg, count every pane in a window, and notice that patterned floor tiles are an exercise in geometry.

To see how Ponemone operates, start your tour at Evergreen House. The exhibited watercolor series was done during the last two years, but an introductory section demonstrates how the artist arrived at his highly selective and idiosyncratic approach. A 1979 watercolor, "Monument City," depicts the Lee-Jackson Memorial in Wyman Park, but it's cropped in such a way that you only see the front part of the horses in this Civil War monument. Most of the composition is dominated by a large tree that evokes a woodsy setting--quite appropriate for horse-riding generals.

Ponemone is also not averse to moving pictorial elements around to suit his purposes. In the 1991 watercolor "Still Life," he takes pyramids, shafts, and other funerary monuments at Baltimore's historic Green Mount Cemetery and masses them together as if they were geometrically shaped pieces that could be moved around on a game board. The color contrasts are equally dramatic; we see a gray shaft next to a reddish pyramid. But if this watercolor helps us understand the artist's creative evolution, it also reveals his weaknesses: All the massed forms and contrasting colors verge on visual overload. If the idea is to get us to contemplate the essence of architecture as if these were idealized, platonic forms, the composition proves to be too busy for its own good.

This is a nagging problem throughout the exhibit. The more recent "Hampton--Blindspots" combines architectural elements from that Towson mansion's windows and roof. The vividly heightened greens and reds grab your attention, but are these colors being used to advantage or in an arbitrary manner? In an educational sense, do you learn more about Hampton?

Because Ponemone has such a quirky take on these buildings, the answer to such questions is sometimes yes and sometimes no. I would've liked to see more pieces that offer views of entire or nearly entire buildings. This might sound too literal-minded or conservative, but Ponemone's flights of fancy sometimes take him far enough from his sources to perhaps do them a disservice.

One such more expansive view is found in "Homewood--Privyledge," exhibited at Homewood House. In the painting, a brick privy near the main house seems like an elegant place to take a dump. The outhouse's smallness is emphasized by the artist's rendering of a card table and architectural fretwork above and beside the privy. It's an effectively witty way to suggest how much care was extended to all aspects of the domestic operations at Homewood back in the early 19th century.

Even Ponemone's most fanciful renderings are technically well realized and worth a look. And occasionally he really scores with pictures in which design and theme come together beautifully.

In "Mount Clare--Generations," for example, fragmentary depictions of a Georgian portico and a Federal mantelpiece demonstrate how such mansions were constantly being added to, and thus reflect a history of changing taste rather than being fixed in a single period. The relatively spare composition and striking colors make for a handsome picture, but what really makes this work shine is the child's wooden rocking horse resting atop the portico. It's a reminder of the human presence--a family once lived in this house.

The history of an entire people is conveyed in an extremely clever watercolor, "Lloyd Street," in which door hinges from that East Baltimore synagogue are so relatively large and schematically rendered in the composition that they're made to look like Torah scrolls. Also, the geometry-minded artist has taken design elements from the synagogue's stained-glass windows and come up with a window design--a grid of two rows of five windows apiece--that evokes the Ten Commandments. By freely rearranging architectural elements, Ponemone offers religious as well as architectural insights.

And if you're wondering what sort of house the artist lives in, "Paw Feet" focuses on the leg bottoms of three pieces of furniture in Ponemone's Mount Vernon residence. Such anthropomorphized furniture feet are odd enough when seen in context as part of a piece of furniture, and shown close-up they're really weird. This painting is both historically accurate and hysterical.

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