One can look at Eugene Leake's paintings of misty fields, o night black as a wall, of sun glowing orange through atmosphere so heavy it almost falls like a curtain to the ground, and be tempted to call him a romantic. Actually, he's more a realist in the sense that he's painting what's there with as much truth as possible.
As his career has matured, however, the "there" that he has concentrated on in his Maryland landscapes has been less the fields and the trees than light (and recently dark, too) and air and space -- things that have to be defined by what they do to the fields and the trees or vice versa.
The process continues in the just-opened "Eugene Leake: New Paintings" at Grimaldis. In some of these -- especially a trio in which the paint is so dry it almost looks like pastel -- the subject is air. In "Cool Gray Sunrise" and "August Fog with Orange Sun" the gray mist dissolves the trees in a lavender haze that is then breathed up into the sky, becoming thinner but still perceptible.
The poet Julia Randall once wrote that of all painters Corot was the one who painted the air. If she meant by that that he made you feel the air that can't be seen, Leake may come closest to that in the small but memorable "Turner Valley Snow," a study in grays and whites in which the sky and the snow give presence to the quality of air.
The trees gathering toward the middle of "On the Edge of the Woods" form space into a kind of hourglass shape, cinching it in the waist yet letting it slip through a series of openings until it once again expands on the far side.
In "March Light on Deer Creek" space encounters a wall of trees yet filters through, leaping free into a deep purplish distance. Trees in both of these paintings do a careful balancing act by defining but not enclosing space.
In "Jarrettsville Night," on the other hand, the blackness that covers most of the surface makes a palpable object of nothing; instead of an unlimited sea of darkness, it seems a solid wall that pushes back the advance of the eye and thrusts the lighted buildings at us across the stage-like space.
It is above all the sense of experimentation that keeps Leake's body of work fresh. If, here, he experiments with space, he also experiments with paint, from dry to almost creamy; if he experiments with air, he also experiments with brushstroke, at times intense and jittery, making staccato notes on the canvas, at times comparatively relaxed.
If it is possible to say that this show is more uneven than previous ones, that is not because experimentation has caused varying results, but because through experimentation Leake has advanced to the point at which it is easier to distinguish his best from the sort of thing that used to be his best. His work is so popular that he could have gone on doing the same sort of thing over and over again and found an easy market for it. Fortunately, he has never been satisfied with "good enough," and happily, the most successful works in this show are those which take the most risks, address the greatest difficulties, push hardest -- in which the desire to experiment is most evident.
Always, however, there is the sense that the experiment is not solely for its own sake but in the service of what is there. The "real" is at the beginning and the end of Leake's work, but it is a real that makes perceptible the impalpable as well as the palpable elements of which the totality of the landscape consists.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Saturdays 10 a.m.to 5 p.m.,through Oct.27
Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.