One of Raoul Middleman's most perceptive statements about his art, in a revealing 1990 essay, was, ". . . skies with lots of hurtling clouds, before or after a storm, are my thing." If there are any doubts about that, a visit to Steven Scott, site of "Raoul Middleman: Recent Landscapes, Portraits and Still Lifes," will dispel it.
The skies in Middleman's landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes show him at his energetic best. His tense, impatient brush stroke lends his clouds a fine dynamic sense, and his color adds to the intensity of these skies. They contain not only whites and blues and grays but reds, yellows and pinks, and they look right even when they don't look real, as in "Autumn, Harford County."
Space is another aspect of what makes Middleman's landscapes his most satisfying works -- the kind of deep space toward which the land (or sea) goes hurtling back from the bottom of the picture, and the sky from the top, until they meet at a point that seems impossibly far away, as in "Jetty Beach." The kind of sweep the artist achieves with this work shows him at his most exhilarating, and it's a picture that demonstrates his mastery of light as well.
Space is also what you need to give Middleman paintings; they are at their most satisfying viewed from several feet. Middleman's a modernist, at the same time a representational and an abstract artist. His brush stroke is meant to be seen as both brush stroke and as whatever he's depicting. We're supposed to see how the building was physically made by the artist at the same time that we see it as a building. From a few feet away, Middleman's passages of abstract brushwork are much more interesting than they are from a few inches away. The red-shuttered window at the left of "Brittany Village" and the foreground island in "Autumn on the Susquehanna" are cases in point here. The mark that Middleman makes is simply best when seen from a distance.
There are places, too, where at any distance at least part of the effect doesn't come off as obviously intended. In "Lapidum Falls," the white paint that's supposed to depict water falling over rocks at the left of the painting stubbornly refuses to be anything but white paint.
In sum, though, Middleman overcomes his own weaknesses with an intensity of response to his subject matter that carries you past imperfections. He calls himself an expressionist, and that's not untrue, but he's also something of a romantic in his idealization of whatever it is he paints. He loves the dilapidation he depicts in "South Balto." and the detritus he renders in "Junkyard" with the same passion he lavishes on a landscape such as "Mer d'Emeraude." And even when he's not at his best he never fails to communicate that passion.
What: "Raoul Middleman: Recent Landscapes, Portraits and Still Lifes"
Where: Steven Scott Gallery, 515 N. Charles St.
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Oct. 29
Call: (410) 752-6218