Juxtaposing reality and creativity

Years ago I boarded in a house whose walls were hung with several commissioned portraits of my landlord's family painted by Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman.

Living with these paintings lent them a certain homey familiarity over time, and after a while they seemed almost as artless and uncomplicated as snapshots. It was only when someone in the family happened to stand next to his or her portrait, and the painted image suddenly confronted the real one, that you saw how radically Middleman's art had transformed its subject.


I was reminded of that experience on seeing the three dozen or so recent paintings by Middleman on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery through March 28. Most of the pictures are landscapes painted within the last year, though the show also includes a few portraits and figure studies from the 1990s.

For a long time I thought Middleman's style was pretty much set. He had a way of doing things that everybody recognized as unique to him, and it didn't seem to change a great deal from one year to the next.


His new paintings still look like Middlemans, but now I see that what I thought had been most familiar and unchanging about his work was in fact its most dynamic and unpredictable aspect. It's a quality of spontaneity and quicksilver movement that gives everything he looks at a new birth in paint.

Middleman has a jocular eye, and his pictures of people are full of good humor and a wide-eyed curiosity for their peculiarities. His landscapes are even more freely drawn than his portraits, the scene in front of him being merely an excuse, as it were, for the transformative exercise of his imagination.

In an interview several years ago, Middleman told me that he painted very rapidly, completing many of his pictures within a few hours. The speed with which he painted, he suggested, allowed him the freedom to instantly transcribe his intuitions and impressions into images.

Eventually I came to realize that it was those intuitions and impressions, rather than faithfulness to appearances, that made the portraits in my landlord's house seem so familiar - and so true.

It's the same with these new landscapes. I can imagine each of the places he depicts without really expecting them ever to look like his paintings, which have a life of their own independent of the local geography.

And yet you have to look at them but once to know that only Middleman could have imagined them, and that, because he has, we, too, have learned to see the world afresh.

Walters director knighted

Who says running a museum isn't a heroic vocation? Just ask Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan, who earlier this year was made a knight by the French government for his valiant service in the lists of art.


In January, Vikan was honored by the French minister of Culture and Communication with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, an award bestowed upon "persons who have contributed greatly to the arts."

The presentation was made by French Cultural Attache Lazare Paupert during a reception for the Walters' current exhibition, "Manet: The Still-Life Paintings." Before coming to the Walters in January, the show had premiered at Paris' Musee d'Orsay.

Vikan, a specialist in Medieval and Byzantine art who has served as the Walters' director since 1984, says he appreciates the honor, though practically he's not sure it'll make much difference in the way he lives.

"I want to wear that little colored lapel ribbon they give you next time I travel on Air France and see whether anybody notices," Sir Gary said.

Vikan also received a heavy French medal designed to be worn with white-tie formal wear.

"Unfortunately, I don't wear white ties, so I keep it in a revered spot at home," he said. "And I have the official document in my office."


We wondered whether now that he is a Chevalier, Vikan might don some of the historic ceremonial armor in the Walters' collection to wear on special occasions, like staff meetings.

"None of it fits me," he said. "And besides, none of it's French."

Controversy hits cafe

Readers of this column know their peripatetic critic will travel just about anywhere to report on the latest art scandal.

Now we've got a scandal brewing right here in our own back yard. No need for plane or hotel reservations, just a brisk stroll down Charles Street to One World Cafe in Federal Hill, where photographer Angelo Solera's new show, "Body Parts," has patrons literally gnashing their teeth.

"We've had a lot of complaints about this show," said Pat Baker, the exasperated cafe manager. "At one point, people were covering the art on the walls with newspapers so they wouldn't have to look at it."


Solera, who last year got a sudden notion to start showing his work in area eateries and taverns, seemed, well, shocked to hear his work was considered shocking.

"They are saying my pictures are obscene," he complained in a recent voice-mail message. "I don't think it's fair."

In truth, Solera's pictures, on view on One World's first and second floors, and which remind one of sort of low-tech Helmut Newton fashion shots, do seem a little out of place amid the cafe's informal, rathskeller-style clientele.

Many of the pictures depict nude women in semi-erotic poses artfully draped with heaps of red flower petals, crucifixes and other incongruous objects. There are also shots of women standing inside steel cages wearing nothing except military-style caps and chains around their necks.

In an artist statement mounted on the wall, Solera says his pictures reflect his fascination with the beauty and mystery of the female body.

I asked Baker why she agreed to exhibit the pictures if she found them offensive. She said she hadn't seen any of the photographs before the show went up last week.


My judgment: Solera's photographs aren't obscene, but they are not quite all the way there as art, either. Maybe the concept needs some rethinking. Meanwhile, the cafe surely needs to pay more attention to its curatorial function next time.

As I've learned over and over in this job, there's truly no such thing as bad publicity - but please, not while I'm eating.