From the ancient Greeks to the 20th-century modernists, the human figure has been the form through which artists have expressed their society's highest ideals -- religious, moral and ethical principles, notions of science and mathematics, even political and social philosophies.
In the early modern era, however, with its turn toward nonrepresentational abstraction, it seemed for a time that traditional depictions of the body might have become obsolete. Cubism and dada, the most radical innovations of the first decades of the 20th century, both seemed to reject the very idea of realistic representation, along with the elaborate system of pictorial symbolism embodied in images of the human form.
But as Oliver Shell, curator of a lovely focus exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Persistent Figure in Modern Sculpture, notes in an accompanying wall text, the early reports of the body's demise turned out to be premature.
The sculptors of the modern era not only discovered new ways of depicting the figure, they also endowed their images with new meanings that reflected the radical new ideas of a rapidly changing urban, industrial society.
You can see how artists began reinterpreting the figure in the Lithuanian-born American artist Jacque Lipchitz's small bronze sculpture, Study for Woman With Guitar (1925).
Lipchitz abstracted the woman's figure by breaking it up into a series of faceted planes much like those found in a cubist painting by Picasso or Braque.
Picasso himself had taken an early step toward translating cubist painting into sculpture in his 1909 bust of a woman that is now owned by the National Gallery in Washington. He's represented in the BMA show by Head of a Picador with a Broken Nose, a 1903 self-portrait inspired by a work by Rodin.
This small-scale show manages to cover a lot of ground, from the surrealistic abstractions of Louise Bourgeois, Max Weber and Man Ray to the modern classicism of Aristide Maillol, Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise. Many of these diminutive pieces were designed as maquettes for larger works, but here their small size lends them an immediacy and intimacy that suggest the original excitement of their makers' creative process.
The Persistent Figure in Modern Sculptureruns through June 17 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or visit artbma.org.
An Annie Oakley approach
Speaking of abstraction, it would be hard to imagine a more insistently nonrepresentational approach to art-making than firing a load of buckshot at a metal plate and calling the result a painting.
Yet that's exactly what artist Margaret Evangeline does. Her polished stainless-steel paintings created by gunshot impacts are on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery.
Evangeline's method isn't all madness, however. The randomness of her mark-making harks back to the Surrealists' fascination with chance and odd juxtapositions, while the splatter factor recalls both Jackson Pollock's frenzied dripping and Richard Serra's early sculptures made by hurling buckets of molten metal against his studio wall.
The artist, a Louisiana native based in New York, used a variety of rifles and shotguns to create this unusual body of work, whose mirrorlike surfaces reflect the viewer's image. Seeing yourself there, surrounded by all those bullet holes, just might have the effect of making you feel lucky to still be alive, and that's always good.
A companion show of large, abstract black-and-white photographs by Baltimore photographer Christopher Myers rounds out the gallery's offerings.
Both shows run through Nov. 25 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or visit cgrimaldisgallery.com.