Barbara Kassel embellishes her landscapes with mystery


The landscape paintings of Barbara Kassel are calm, beautiful and disturbing. We are first seduced by the Mediterranean-type villas with their terraces that go right up to meet a calm sea. Still waters do indeed run deep, though, for we soon realize that these exquisitely spare seaside houses have a mysterious aura. The mystery is enhanced by a human presence that is only implied by an empty chair or a ladder against a wall. We don't really know who lives here. The whole scene is almost too quiet.

Kassel's exhibit of recent paintings at the C. Grimaldis Gallery's Charles Street location works a number of pleasing variations on that theme. Likewise, variations on her technique of paint application may be seen from one painting to the next. Favoring layers of mottled colors that seem to be flaking as if from age, Kassel makes paintings as if they were early Renaissance frescoes depicting cut-away views of buildings placed in idealized landscapes.

As in her previous Baltimore exhibits over the past decade, we're able to track how her particular method adapts to the varied terrain encountered in her world travels.

There are African subjects in the current show, in which typically a composition might consist of a zebra, a house and the moon set in isolation against a flat landscape made all the more desolate by the absence of people. If the proto-surrealism of Henri Rousseau comes to mind here -- wildlife existing on a mental plane as much as on an actual plain -- it's characteristic of an artist who likes to juxtapose isolated objects in settings that seem timeless.

The current show also has several paintings that were inspired by the Biblical architecture and rocky deserts of the Middle East. In "Jerusalem," her rendering of the ancient walled city is such that the whole scene seems set in a timeless realm where distinctions between the ancient past and the present are meaningless. My musings on matters temporal and eternal were enhanced when a real fly landed on the surface of this painting, right where Kassel had painted a chapel-like chamber. If there is a God in heaven, this fly is part of His air force.

When Kassel paints recognizable terrain, whether in Africa or the Middle East, she does so with her customary skill. Perhaps she also does so at a price: the loss of some of the mystery so important to her work. "The Border," for instance, is Middle Eastern in both landscape and message: we see barbed wire strung across the dry hills; a tank ominously poised; and a nearly bare room in which the two chairs, wall map and overhead light bulb make this seem an interrogation chamber with only the occupants missing.

It is an effective painting, to be sure, but the tactical shift here from the purely enigmatic to something a bit more specific warrants a slightly wary response on the part of viewers who never thought of her paintings in terms of that day's headlines. Of course, such a shift in her work is potentially quite exciting. Who knows, we might eventually see what the inhabitants of such environments look like and whether they wear monastic robes or military uniforms.

Sculptors John Ruppert and John Van Alstine have both exhibited singly in Baltimore before, so seeing their joint exhibit of sculpture and drawings in Grimaldis' Morton Street location makes for an interesting pairing.

Van Alstine likes to forcefully bring together disparate materials, granite and steel, as in "Rollover," in which there is a geometric order to how he joins together granite wedges and steel beams. Ruppert prefers to use cast bronze, copper or steel in ways that make us aware of how much texture there can be in the surface of metal.

Barbara Kassel exhibits her recent paintings at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St., through June 1. Call 539-1080. John Van Alstine and John Ruppert exhibit their sculpture and drawings at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 1006 Morton St., through June 1. Call 539-1092.

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