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Robert McClintock's computer-aided artwork clicks with the public

This summer, the Baltimore artist Robert McClintock can see one of his brightly colored original prints hanging in the prestigious Smithsonian Institution. He just can't get into Artscape.

The 54-year-old McClintock is one of Baltimore's most popular — and populist — artists. Though his images of golden retrievers, local landmarks, firefighters and football players can be purchased for as little as $12, people buy enough of them to provide McClintock with gross annual sales that he describes as being in the high six figures.

Four of his prints also are in the National Museum of American History's collection of digital photography. And starting July 2, one of them, an image of Marilyn Monroe's face superimposed on the side of a building in Washington's Woodley Park neighborhood, will be on display in an exhibit called "Pushing Boundaries."

So McClintock can't help feeling stung that his work has been rejected for three of the past four years by the juries that determine which local and national artists can sell their paintings and photographs at the summer Artscape celebration.

"Some people think there might be a jealousy thing operating," McClintock says.

"I'm one of the best-selling artists around. During the 10 years that I showed at Artscape, you couldn't even get into my booth, it was so packed. But I don't fit the profile of a gallery artist starving in a garret. I'm a commercial artist, and I make a living."

McClintock's creations are the visual equivalent of a sugar rush. Partly, that's because the artist uses intense, saturated hues and because the outlines of such buildings as the Domino Sugars plant waver slightly, as if they are reflected in water. He plays with focus, so that a hound's ears and nose loom disproportionately large. In another print, the Bromo Seltzer tower inclines at a sharp angle, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The effect can leave a viewer feeling slightly tipsy.

But McClintock also intentionally paints his adopted city in a rosy glow, with nary a piece of litter in sight. His sports figures are heroic, and most of his dogs seem to be smiling.

That subject matter alone might be enough to discredit McClintock in a field that has traditionally professed a disdain for the marketplace, and which prides itself on producing edgy, intellectually dense work.

It doesn't help that McClintock, who lives in Charles Village, describes himself unapologetically as a businessman, or that he's been so successful at it, maintaining a light-filled studio just steps from the Chesapeake Bay and paying the salaries of four employees.

And it doesn't help that McClintock has bypassed the galleries that typically sell original paintings, watercolors and prints.

Instead, his works have been picked up by such major retail chains as Michaels, Kohl's, HomeGoods, and T.J. Maxx. In the past year alone, McClintock sold more than 50,000 works through a licensing agreement that placed four posters of his dogs in every Target store in North America.

"It's definitely not the fine-art gallery route or the museum route," McClintock says, "but it's a way for my work to be shown nationally and even internationally."

Nor does it help that to create his pieces, he's using new technology that many established artists view with suspicion.

McClintock begins with an original photograph and then paints over it using a computer program that allows him to apply brush strokes of various thicknesses, blend edges and soften colors.

His methodology is akin to hand-tinting Polaroid photographs, and in fact, the artist previously spent several years doing just that.

Detractors contend that McClintock is merely "Photoshopping" his work — that is, generating watercolor and other effects with one click of his mouse — an accusation that he strongly resents. He says he can spend anywhere between five hours and three days creating each image, not including the time it takes to shoot the photograph.

"I take great pride in the originality of my work," he says.

"People think I'm one of the Astors, but I don't have any rich uncles in my back pocket. Everything I have, I've created from scratch. I made one piece of art and someone bought it, so I made two."

Alexander Heilner, associate dean for design and media at the Maryland Institute College of Art, dismisses the argument that because McClintock uses computer technology, his creations shouldn't be considered works of art.

"Of course they're art," he says.

"He starts with an original photograph that he took himself, and instead of sketching on paper, he sketches on a digital tablet. That's the only difference. But whether he's creating art is a separate question from whether he's creating good art."

Heilner says that some of the questions being raised now about digital imagery mirror the objections raised historically to photography, which once was derided as merely a passive reconstruction of reality. It wasn't until the 1970s, Heilner says, that the visual-arts establishment began to treat photography as an art form that is just as valid as painting or sculpture.

"I happen to like bright colors in art, and I would consider hanging one of Robert McClintock's prints in my house," Heilner says. "But I wouldn't expect to engage with it on a conceptual level in the same way that I might engage with other artwork."

Still, there's a lot to be said for mass appeal. Smithsonian curator Shannon Perich, who purchased one of McClintock's portraits of black cats for her home, says she urged the National Museum of American History to obtain four McClintock prints because of his technological innovations.

"In about 2008, we first began seeing a market for digital photographs that didn't look like digital photographs," she says.

"Robert's prints were some of the first works that I saw that really pushed that concept. We decided to obtain some of his pieces because of the role they're playing historically. We're not saying that it's good art or bad art. But clearly, it has to have some merit, because it's marketable."

McClintock takes pride in being entirely self-taught.

He was born in Brattleboro, Vt., to a family that was both artistic and firmly rooted in the commercial world. His father was a hairdresser, his mother an Arthur Murray ballroom dance teacher, and two aunts were fashion photo stylists.

He remembers hanging around community theaters (as a teen, he took publicity photos of an up-and-coming actor named Chris Noth), and tagging along on lingerie shoots for department stores and magazines.

"It was exciting," he says. "There were all these pretty girls, and everyone was laughing and having fun. Plus, they paid me."

McClintock says he dropped out of the University of Vermont "after attending for literally 10 minutes" in 1976. He spent much of the next two decades knocking around Colorado and Vermont, first as a waiter and bartender, and later as a commercial photographer.

It wasn't until around the turn of the century, after McClintock and his wife moved to Baltimore to be closer to her family, that he began experimenting with digital photography.

"The stars all came into alignment," he says. "I just took to it."

One of McClintock's landscapes of the Inner Harbor hangs in the lobby of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the organization that operates Artscape.

Each year, an independent jury decides which 100 to 125 visual artists will be permitted to sell their work at what is frequently described as America's largest free outdoor art festival. For many years, McClintock was among that group.

But he was turned down in 2008, 2009 and again in 2011.

"I'm a local taxpayer trying to make a living," he says.

"I did very well at Artscape. When they take money out of my pocket, that hurts. I don't think they should be inviting artists from all over the country to participate, artists who make no difference to Baltimore. Why not keep the money inside state lines?"

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the promotion and arts office, says national artists are invited to apply to Artscape in order to introduce local art lovers to painters and sculptors from across the U.S.

But he acknowledged that the artists admitted into the weekend festival are determined strictly by the number of points awarded to their works by an independent jury, and not by their geographic location.

"We're proud to have one of Robert's pieces hanging in our lobby and proud that he calls Baltimore home," Gilmore says.

"But Artscape has limited space available for the marketplace. That's why experts in the various disciplines decide who gets in. We have a jury because we wanted to make sure that the process is fair."

For his part, McClintock says he is done banging his head against a wall. The deadline is March 31 for visual artists to submit their work for inclusion in this year's Artscape. For the first time in nearly 15 years, McClintock's name won't be on the list of candidates.

"I'm not going to apply this year," he says.

"Honestly, I opened my own gallery because I didn't want to put up with the brush-off I'd get if I sent my slides off to New York galleries. It's too painful. I don't need the rejection."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Name: Robert McClintock

Age: 54

Occupation: Artist known for his portrayals of Baltimore landmarks and pets

Residence: Charles Village

Birthplace: Brattleboro, Vt.

Education: Briefly attended the University of Vermont

Personal: Married to a family therapist

Family pets: A pit bull and four cats.

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