BAUhouse exhibit recalls Baltimore's bohemians and the Martick years


Mention Martick's and everybody has an anecdote. While younger Baltimoreans only know Martick's as the eccentric French restaurant at 214 W. Mulberry St. that has never cared to announce its presence with street signage or fancy trappings, balding Baltimore bohemians recall when Martick's was a bar that doubled as an art gallery in the 1950s.

An exhibit presenting the work of nine '50s-vintage artists, "Baltimore Bohemians: The Martick's Years," has aptly been mounted at The BAUhouse, an alternative arts center where the fresh artists of today rail against Reagan-Bush conformism as surely as their Beat generation elders did against Eisenhower era fuddy duddyism.

The artists associated with Martick's came up at a time when Baltimore had virtually nothing by way of a commercial gallery scene. An aesthetically conservative city, Baltimore did not exactly embrace some of the modern art styles these artists explored. And so they hung their artwork at places like the Peabody Bookshop, Little Theater and Martick's. They also hung in there in another sense, continuing to live and produce art in Baltimore.

That some of these artists have died in recent years makes a show like The BAUhouse exhibit all the more important in terms of formally gathering together so much anecdote-laden art. Independent curator and folk art dealer Richard Edson is to be commended for putting the show together.

However, there is a serious shortcoming in this exhibit that nearly ruins the whole experience. The Martick's exhibit is by definition a then-and-now kind of show, displaying work from the '50s next to what these same artists have done in our own time. It's absolutely essential in such an exhibit for the work to be dated, even if those dates must be approximate in some cases. Why, then, has none of this work been dated for its BAUhouse installation?

Admittedly, some pieces were signed and dated by the artists at the time of creation and viewers can rely on stylistic inference to roughly date others, but the curatorial abstention from the whole process is very disturbing. Also vexing is that the extensive wall texts, while welcome, are so riddled with writing and punctuation errors as to give one the incorrect impression that bohemians are defined by their knack for flunking English.

But reservations aside, there is plenty of work to enjoy. One of the most satisfying mini-surveys is that of painter Joan Erbe, whose 1954 painting "B&O;" is a dark cityscape that suggests the lingering influence of the Ashcan movement in American painting. How much her work has changed from that painting to one like "The Sorcerer," in which we see her characteristic interest in decorative patterns and in whimsical portraiture! Also brightly decorative is Liz Quisgard, whose paintings and free-standing columns are so completely covered with decorative patterning that an Islamic artist would be jealous.

Just as Erbe's "B&O;" relies on a dark palette to render a city scene, Ralph McGuire's early painting "Baltimore Harbor at Night" has a dense feeling that comes through in both the nocturnal setting and the blockiness of the buildings. There is a knowing naivete to McGuire's approach, with the buildings' windows merely indicated by rows of punched out squares. Also of note is that the harborside power plant was then still spewing smoke from its immense stacks, and working boats sliced through the same waters now claimed by pleasure craft.

Finding artistic inspiration away from the congested city, Leonard Skorko's "The River" is memorable for his way with sketchily brushed foliage, while the same artist's "Red Barn" uses loose blocks and patches of color in what might be termed a casual pastoral style.

For a taste of surrealism, May Wilson's three "ridiculous portraits" are paper collages that humorously do things like place improbable faces atop classical figures, while her four child-sized "mummies" are rather unsettling wrapped forms hanging on the wall. Also evincing surrealist tendencies is Morris Sokolsky's untitled painting of a standing male torso, in which the grotesque clawlike arms, big belly and quasi-head are similar to the work of the English painter Francis Bacon. And Bill Leizman has three untitled bronze sculptures in which the faces seem like Goya-inspired caricatures given a surrealist revamping.

For examples of how New York School abstract painting influenced local artists, consider Glenn Walker's untitled landscape painting in which the human figures are really just vertical accents against the horizontal bands representing the landscape, and also consider two totally abstract paintings by Jack Bonsal in which the layers of color have an all-over insistence to them.

"Baltimore Bohemians: The Martick's Years" remains at The BAUhouse, at 1713 N. Charles St., through Feb. 7. Call (410) 659-5520.

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