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McRae's surreal paintings complex and deeply fascinating


The works of Jennifer McRae, the British painter featured this month at Gomez, combine three salient qualities: a high level of craftsmanship, a classically influenced imagery that reflects early renaissance models, and a soupcon of surrealism that adds another level of interest to her larger and more complex paintings here.

The works divide into two categories: Most are of the individual male figure, rendered as heads or bust-length, in a centered and often distinctly outlined fashion that gives them a sculptural solidity and presence reminiscent of 15th century painter Piero della Francesca.

Some of these are narrative. The young man in "Eros: Contemporanea" has a head shown in profile and an upper body shown frontally. He sports a nipple ring, a key over his heart, and a hand raised in front of him with the traditional gesture of crossed fingers that means "I don't mean it."

There are multiple signals here. The foursquare quality of the figure vs. the gesture of deceit; the figure turned toward us while the head turns away as if to imply conflicting commitments; the fingers crossed in plain sight rather than behind the back as if to be candid about one's lack of sincerity. But the interest in this work lies less in probing its meaning than in the strength of the image itself. Many of McRae's single and double figures here have titles that indicate no program at all -- "Boy's Profile," "Two Studies" -- and need none.

McRae's larger paintings offer a complexity of symbolism and an ambiguity of space that gives them the surreal aura of dreamscapes in which time, place and identity are just outside one's grasp. The finest of them, "Tree of Knowledge," is a tour de force in the good sense of showing many strengths rather than simply showing off.

The two androgynous figures who look away from one another proclaim this a work of the modern age with all its confusions of identity and sexuality. But several elements of the work recall medieval manuscript illustration: its religious subject matter (the Fall), its deliberately awkward rendering of space, and its plethora of symbolism -- the tree, the fruit (here a pear rather than an apple), the pages of a book (The Good Book?) flowing across the landscape, etc.

McRae's work leaves the impression of an artist of remarkable maturity: one at home in various media, who is willing to combine more "important" works with more modest ones but who brings the same seriousness to both, and whose images achieve effectiveness without reaching for effect for its own sake.

Gomez also brings two other British artists to Baltimore this month. Alasdair Neil MacDonell and Sally MacDonell work in sculptural ceramics, but separately. Mr. McDonell's accomplished heads incorporate patterns molded in clay from everyday items -- a piece of plastic, a toy truck. These reflect the modern industrial world, but at the same time are reminiscent of tribal scarification. They suggest -- as do McRae's works -- the richness of cultural influences at work on the contemporary consciousness.

Ms. McDonell's small porcelain figures deal with the revelatory nature of gesture -- a placement of arm or an attitude of posture can indicate wariness, discomfort, withdrawal. They also reveal an artist less fully formed than her two companions in this commendable show.

At Gomez

What: Works of Jennifer McRae, Alasdair Neil MacDonell and Sally MacDonell

Where: Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 4

Call: (410) 752-2080.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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