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The Eve of Destruction

Finding Beauty in Vanishing Baltimore

Exaggerated lines and cartoonish incongruities mark Leslie Schwing's pencil and pastel renderings of Baltimore.

By Phil Andrews | Posted 4/18/2001

Vanishing Points

Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery through April 30

Leslie Schwing and Greg Fletcher paint and draw destruction. Many of the couple's favorite subjects are slated for demolition or are already partly reduced to rubble. Seeing their new exhibit at the Craig Flinner Contemporary Gallery in Mount Vernon, you'd think that dilapidated rowhouses were the city's most precious resource--and you might be right.

Fletcher's oil technique recalls the Ashcan School of the 1920s and the work of Edward Hopper, whose experimentation with angles and shades of light finds new resonance in Fletcher's expressive shadows and subdued lighting. Much of Fletcher's work depicts the light of early morning or the hours just before dusk, when the sun's effect is most striking.

The centerpiece of Fletcher's portion of the show is the "Ghost" series, eight oil paintings documenting buildings in the 1400 block of East Baltimore Streets only weeks before their demolition. A sense of deep serenity--the calm before death--radiates from the subdued color palette and expressive shadows. The artist captures the fullness of light, and though the deteriorating rowhouses are unoccupied, they are by no means empty. The rooftops sag with age and the buildings hold countless tales of those who have passed through them. In one of the series' paintings, "Crows," impossibly long early-morning shadows splash a bird's beak over the facade. "Ghost Demolition," in beautiful pastels, shows the onset of mechanical intervention: a home stripped of its outer covering, brilliant streaks of light dancing through its dust, nearly corporeal in their solidity. The abandoned storefront in "Rittehoff Plumbing & Hardware" also emphasizes the spiritual quality of light, hinting at the subject's old Baltimore history through faded signs rendered by thick brush strokes and shaded by deep, solid shadows.

It's impossible to ignore the presence of life in these scenes of decay. Piles of rubble, lovingly rendered by generous impressionistic strokes, complete a cycle of destruction more natural than tragic. There's an undeniable rhythm unique to each piece: the swaying, angled lines of shadow and brick; the arched rooftops reflected in the swirls of cloud and sky. Though devoid of overt religious themes, crosses of wood and old utility poles suggest omniscience in the light that fills Fletcher's world.

Before moving to Baltimore and meeting lifelong resident Fletcher, Leslie Schwing mostly depicted the mythical landscapes of her own imagination. This mysticism still seeps through the dusty cracks in her depictions of rowhouses and steeples. It's expressed in "The General's Ride," a striking pastel of Greenmount Cemetery, where serene graves lay beneath stately crosses and angelic statuary glowing in late sunlight. Near the horizon, lines of rowhouses and tall buildings creep over the jagged walls that separate the city of the living from this community of the dead.

Schwing's prefers to work with dry media, such as pencils and pastels, but her style is complex and full of character. Layer upon of layer of strokes add depth and shade to the brick and sky. Her work is intricate, and she favors exaggerated, angular lines, often nearly cartoonish in their visual incongruities. She recalls a darker, more mystical Baltimore.

But besides the concerted effort to document threatened cityscapes, the essential element of Fletcher's and Schwing's work is partnership. Nearly all the pieces in the show were created on the frequent walks the two take around town. And to see their work side by side testifies not only to their affinity for Baltimore, but for each other.

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