The visual art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti offers evidence that the strength of the artist does not lie primarily in the facility of the hand. He will take no prizes for technique. But he does possess the artist's essential quality -- the passionate desire to communicate to the world something worthwhile.
At 76, Ferlinghetti is better known for his poetry, prose and left-leaning political activism than for his paintings and drawings. His best-known books include "Pictures of the Gone World" and "A Coney Island of the Mind."
For almost 50 years, he has also been creating visual works. The University of Maryland Baltimore County exhibit, "Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Paintings + Drawings 1981-1994," presents 14 paintings and two dozen drawings in which the artist's fervent commitment, and ability to translate that commitment into visual terms, far outweigh any technical weaknesses.
For "Sing Sing #1" Ferlinghetti took a photograph of a man blindfolded in an electric chair, enlarged it, covered the background with paint, and wrote above the image "This Is Not a Man." Execution, as a legal form of taking human life, symbolizes the dehumanizing nature of the state -- the political entity that takes the life. The man in the photograph was a real person, but masked he becomes no one and everyone, you and me. I noticed his shoes, which were very much like the ones I was wearing at the time.
In "Liberty Series #2" Ferlinghetti places the image of the Statue of Liberty in a boat being rowed by a blindfolded figure. If this boat is the ship of state, it's being guided by one who doesn't know where it's going.
In "Samothrace #1" Ferlinghetti places image of the famous "Winged Victory of Samothrace" in the back of a pickup truck and writes "Victory" across the top of the picture. We can see this as a victory for popular culture, which appropriates the icons of high art and makes them its own.
In "Upper Classes" a couple enjoy themselves in a boat, oblivious to the scream of a tortured head borrowed from Picasso's "Guernica." Here, as elsewhere in Ferlinghetti's work, the symbolism can be pretty obvious but the image nevertheless has power.
The female figure dominates Ferlinghetti's drawings, whether as Eve, as in "Mozart's Girlfriend" (in which she sits on the piano much as Lucy sits on Schroeder's piano in "Peanuts"), or as object of desire in "Body in Tidepool of Love." In "Untitled (Reclining Females with Crucifo)" he presents the crucifixion as an example of male exhibitionism, beside which the figure of nurturing woman appears to be offered as a better symbol of humanity.
Not all will agree with the ideas behind Ferlinghetti's works, but agree or disagree you have to admit he can utter them in a forceful way -- visually as well as verbally.
What: "Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Paintings + Drawings 1981-1994"
Where: Fine Arts Gallery, UMBC, 5401 Wilkens Ave.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Aug. 26.
Call: (410) 455-3188.