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Gallery Roundup: The Parlor, C. Grimaldis Gallery, and Catalyst Contemporary

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This month three stellar group shows opened in Baltimore that reminded me of the art scene’s capacity to surprise and delight in totally different ways. From living artists reflecting on death at a pop-up in a former funeral parlor to discovering paintings that still feel fresh from the city’s most dearly departed artists at its most established gallery, the exhibitions on view this month defy the stereotype that the arts hibernate over the holidays.

In Memento Mori at The Parlor (a new space in an old funeral home) dozens of artworks respond to the space and the concept of death, often with unexpected results. A bit further downtown, Figure / Narrative at C. Grimaldis Gallery and Manifest Presence at Catalyst Contemporary both demonstrate the breadth of painting that can fall under the umbrella of figuration—the former pairing works from the late greats Grace Hartigan and Raoul Middleman with contemporary paintings from Heejo Kim and Beverly McIver.

 

Memento Mori at The Parlor, works by I. Henry Photo Project and Edgar Reyes, photo by Catherine Borg
Sculpture by Stephen Hendee at The Parlor, photo by Catherine Borg

Memento Mori: Amy Berbert Vu, Antonio McAfee, Bao Nguyen, Besan Khamis, Carrie Fucile and Brenton Lim, Dina Fiasconaro, Edgar Reyes, Jill Fannon, Lynn Silverman, Michele Blu, Stephen Hendee, and Webster Phillips / I Henry Photo Project

For over a century, the late 1800s townhouse at 108 West North Avenue has been a funeral parlor. Soon the idiosyncratic building, like so much of the surrounding neighborhood, will be remodeled (hopefully with a light touch) into an art space, bar, and restaurant. To mark this transition, curator Catherine Borg has assembled 50 artworks from a dozen artists—as well as a pop-up speakeasy bar from nearby hangout No Land Beyond and mixologist Ciara Newton.

The opening was one of the buzziest art events in recent memory, and it’s a testament to the strength of the work on display that they weren’t overlooked in everyone’s curiosity about the context itself. The scavenger-hunt-like hang leads viewers around the building, engaging with unusual nooks-and-crannies of the building, and representing a diversity of cultural perspectives on dying and funerary rites.

The strongest pieces in the show embrace the ambiguity and liminality of both death and the transitional nature of the space. In Lynn Silverman’s four-panel “Cremains,” the photographer captures unclaimed ashes discovered in the basement in different lights on the funeral parlor’s embalming table. There’s an almost dark humor to the first in the series, which directly documents a cardboard box, seemingly self-consciously labeled “TEMPORARY CONTAINER” in block letters, as if the vessel were excusing its humble appearance. How did this “temporary container” in a forgotten basement come to be the final resting place of an unknown person?

Silverman’s other photos show similar boxes from different angles as they traverse the clinical table in various configurations of light and shadow. Some imply precarity, as the box teeters by the precipice of the plane, while others recede into darkness. It speaks to the uncertainty of “afterlife” in terms of both physical and spiritual remains. The series is so engaging, it provoked many a personal discussion amongst viewers at the opening in the creepy, narrow basement corridor about what they’ve done (or not) with the remains of their loved ones. It’s always a testament to an artist’s skill when their work can inspire connections like that.

 

Photo by Lynn Silverman on exhibit at The Parlor, photo by Catherine Borg

Around the corner, there’s an opening to an even creepier chamber, in which the cremains had been discovered. Here, a glowing, stained-glass-like installation by Stephen Hendee recreated various vessels of unclaimed remains—of which apparently there were 15,000 cases nationally in 2018 alone—in brightly-colored, LED-lit translucent polypropylene. The boxes become an eerie beacon, resisting the risk of being forgotten and ignored.

On the second floor, dreamy photographs by Jill Fannon (frequent BmoreArt contributor) from the series Care in the Garden pay tribute to healthcare workers who served during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re installed in a cabinet in a small antechamber, implying a quiet intimacy. “Aurora (PA in her Garden at Home)” depicts the titular masked physician’s assistant basking in sunlight, engulfed in a flowering bush. Her eyes are closed as she tilts her head back towards the light—as if recharging in a moment of respite between emotionally draining shifts of resisting and witnessing countless deaths.

In a nearby room, an excerpt from Dina Fiasconaro’s in-progress experimental film There is No One What Will Take Care of You also speaks to themes of caregiving and exhaustion. A video of a young woman slumped backwards, collapsed next to a bed, slowly traverses the wall and floor of the nearly-domestic space. It’s spectral and hypnotic, and apparently from a larger narrative project about a father-daughter relationship tested by addiction.

The drug epidemic also haunts Amy Berbert Vu’s gorgeous, tragic project Remembering the Stains on the Sidewalk, in which the photographer has documented all the sites of Baltimore’s hundreds of 2016 homicides exactly one year after they were committed. The installation comprises framed photos as well as several gorgeously-bound tomes on a table. The sheer quantity of murders is crushing, so it’s impressive that each individual photo is so richly considered and beautifully-shot. It’s an archive of a city in a perpetual state of mourning, and I imagine a future anthropologist pouring over details in her haunting cityscapes for clues as to what went wrong with our society.

The cycle of systemic violence and mourning are rendered with a less clinical eye in the work of Besan Khamis, whose “Into the Flowers (Funeral) 1 & 2” represent the only paintings in the show. Inspired by the Palestinian funerary rites of the artist’s youth, they depict a processions of coffins in deceptively cheery colors. The unusual perspectival space and gravity-defying splatters of colors—are these flowers cascading? ascending?—make these some of my personal favorites in the show. The duality of the funeral as a time of grief and celebration of life is most evident here, as is the sense of ambiguity and mystery surrounding death and transition.

Memento Mori: Amy Berbert Vu, Antonio McAfee, Bao Nguyen, Carrie Fucile and Brenton Lim, Dina Fiasconaro, Edgar Reyes, Jill Fannon, Lynn Silverman, Michele Blu, Stephen Hendee, and Webster Phillips / I Henry Photo Project
The Parlor, 108 West North Avenue
Curated by Catherine Borg
Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 5:00 – 8:00PM
Closing Reception: Saturday, Dec. 17, 5:00 – 8:00PM

***

 

Grace Hartigan (1922 - 2008) at C. Grimaldis Gallery
Beverly McIver, painting, at C. Grimaldis Gallery
Heejo Kim, painting at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Figure / Narrative: Grace Hartigan, Heejo Kim, Beverly McIver, Raoul Middleman at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Isn’t it a wonder how prolific Grace Hartigan was? More than a decade after her passing, I still find myself pleasantly surprised and moved by her fluid, masterful canvasses.

In Figure / Narrative, two of her lovely, massive figurative oil paintings are total show-stoppers, as is a smaller watercolor from 1994 depicting a Madonna with child. Her interest in art historical references makes a compelling argument that her shift from the pure abstraction on which she cut her teeth in the genre’s heyday was a wise move. But I’m also convinced Hartigan’s earlier experimentation with oil paint’s expressive material properties is what laid the foundation for her success in figuration. The layers of alternately washy or opaque paint application in works such as “Lady Macbeth” (1996) have a poetry that could sell me on whatever imagery she renders in calligraphic linework.

Maybe the most enduring aspect of Hartigan’s Baltimore legacy is the indelible mark she left on MICA’s Hoffberger School of Painting, of which Heejo Kim is a second-year student. In monumentally-scaled canvases such as the larger-than-life “Can I Get Two Beers?” Kim crafts unexpected compositions and perspective that animate figures and forms that always seem just out of frame. Each of his four acid-hued paintings on view have an unconventional, almost-cinematic sense of storytelling—as if we’re seeing cropped shots of a larger narrative mise-en-scène.

The human figures are rendered as illustration-like tube-y forms, reminding me of painters I love such as GaHee Park or Jordan Kasey’s abstractions of the body. But what sets Kim apart is his fluency in depicting certain details and textures with expert, idiosyncratic color choices—like a director zooming in on an object while leaving his actors out-of-focus. The chrome, woodgrain, or vinyl in a diner booth might pop, but include a surprising decision such as shadows rendered in sickly flat greens. They’re a joy to “watch,” but we’ll never quite grasp the convoluted plot of a scene involving, say, a woman picking beans off the floor with chopsticks while another out–of-frame seated figure’s feet rest on her back.

There’s also a sense of mystery in Beverly McIver’s anxious paintings, which look wet-to-the-touch even though the oldest have been dry for nearly two decades. Through fluid paint handling in works such as “Watching Mammy Sleep” (2003) or “Mourning Elizabeth #4” (a 2004 self-portrait) McIver depicts Black women with mask-like ambiguity, evoking blackface or other racist tropes that present an ugly foil to her painting’s formally gorgeous surfaces. There’s an uncomfortable tension between the impulse to enjoy and turn away. As a viewer, I am always drawn to works that look like they were “fun” to produce. Here, there’s an uneasy relationship between the artist’s equally evident pain and love of painting. Are we voyeurs also “Watching Mammy Sleep” as our eyes trace the marks of McIver’s brush?

Rounding-out the exhibition are four works by another late, great Baltimore painter with a storied MICA legacy: three 2012 monoprints and one 1988 oil painting by Raoul Middleman. That voyeuristic/grotesque vibe is one of Middleman’s hallmarks. His scribbled lines carve out voluptuous women and leering men, like a Baltimore update of a German Expressionist’s frenetic documentation of seedy Weimar Berlin nightlife. It’s always a joy to be remembered how many good painters Baltimore has birthed, adopted, or attracted over the years, and Figure / Narrative sells me on the idea there’s always more to come—weird stories and uninhibited paint handling welcome. 

Figure / Narrative: Grace Hartigan, Heejo Kim, Beverly McIver, Raoul Middleman
C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles Street
Hours:  Wednesday – Saturday, 11 AM – 5 PM or by appointment
On view through January 14

***

 

Joan Cox, "Garden of Autumn," 2021, Acrylic on canvas at Catalyst
Christopher Batten, "Renewal Rising," 2019, Oil and aerosol on canvas, at Catalyst
Thiang Uk, "Refugee 1," 2017, Oil on canvas, at Catalyst

Manifest Presence: Damon Arhos, Christopher Batten, Joan Cox, William S. Dutterer, Kate Kretz, and Thiang Uk at Catalyst Contemporary

Fans of figurative painting are in for a treat this month. If you like the Grimaldis show, you’re going to love Manifest Presence, conveniently downstairs. Here, six painters with wildly different techniques and aesthetics use representation to tackle timely themes including queer love, Black identity, reproductive rights, refugees, as well as personal mythologies and ritualistic imagery. 

Kate Kretz’s three oil paintings demonstrate an uncanny ability to realistically capture different qualities of light—a candle-lit reflection in a window, an incandescent bulb casting a hard beam across a bedroom, or a sickly yellow glow from underneath kitchen cabinets—that belie the stranger formal decisions in her surreal nocturnes. The perspective of all the planes in her compositions are slightly askew, as if her human subjects are floating through a dreamscape in which they don’t quite land. The effect gives the impression that the viewer is looking down into a theatrical maquette or diorama.

Conversely, Joan Cox’s cheery paintings of lesbian couples eschew a naturalistic sense of light in favor of a riot of color combinations, textures, and pattern that glow. In “Garden of Autumn,” a couple holds hands in the thick of tomato bushes and flowers rendered with an impasto application of acrylic that gives the painting an almost frieze-like weight. The figures however, feel light and animated—seemingly vibrating against and through the millefleurs.

I found myself thinking about the importance of representation in front of Christopher Batten’s “Renewal Rising,” an oil-and-aerosol (a media combination I didn’t think was chemically possible!) portrait of a young Black girl surrounded by winged insects. It was painted in 2019, but I couldn’t help recalling the recent discourse around “adultification bias” that’s arisen after a Gordon Lawshe, a former New Jersey Republican Party official, called the police to report “a real tiny Black woman” acting strangely in his neighborhood. That “woman” ended up being his 9-year-old neighbor Bobbi Wilson, a fourth grader with an interest in entomology who was doing her civic duty to kill invasive spotted lantern flies. The story made me so damn angry, and angrier now that this is the association I’m sure will be on so many viewers’ minds while looking at a perfectly lovely painting of a cute little girl.

Arguably my personal favorite paintings in the show are those that stray nearly the farthest from direct representation. There’s an intimacy and mystery to Thiang Uk’s paintings, which draw the viewer into small fields of dense abstract pattern nestled among expressive brushwork that roughly alludes to anthropomorphic figures. The paintings seem to reference no one established mythology or art history, but rather a cosmology all of Uk’s own making. With two paintings titled “Refugee” and one titled “A between room,” I suspect they speak to displacement and hybridization—aspects of a generation defined by globalization and migration, from asylum seekers to relatively privileged “third culture kids.” I see the figures in Uk’s paintings as a personal pantheon, each with borrowed symbolism from a different landscape, textile tradition, or spirituality. They’re absolutely beautiful and cryptic—one could spend hours imagining narratives and finding new details hidden amongst the gorgeous color combinations even in the smallest of Uk’s canvasses.

Manifest Presence: Damon Arhos, Christoph Batten, Joan Cox, William S. Dutterer, Kate Kretz, and Thiang Uk
Catalyst Contemporary, 523 N. Charles Street (downstairs)
Hours: Wednesday – Saturday 12 PM – 5 PM
On view until Jan 7

Header Image Top-Bottom: Grace Hartigan, Joan Cox, and Memento Mori at The Parlor

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