Grace Hartigan, who made her reputation as an abstract-expressionist in New York in the 1950s, was once asked why she turned to painting figures after moving to Baltimore in the 1960s.
"I guess my pictures of geishas, Kabuki actors and opera singers are excuses for a painting," she said. "The subject simply gives you a way to arrange the colors in the painting, because it's more interesting to paint a costume than just a large area of color without reference to anything else."
Ruth Pettus, whose vibrant equestrian images are on view in the show Pony Express at Galerie Francoise, clearly has taken her cue from Hartigan's idea of figures as an "excuse" for abstract-expressionist painting.
Pettus' abstract canvases are sensuous explosions of paint that work on the imagination exactly as abstract-expressionist paintings do, yet lose none of their expressive power to the fact that somewhere amid all her passionate mark-making there's also a horse.
In previous shows, Pettus has exhibited paintings inspired by men in business suits and by bathers and dancers.
Her horse-theme canvases are indebted to ancient and modern equestrian motifs, from the stiff-legged ponies on antique Greek vases to the spirited, noble steeds of Velazquez, Delacroix, Gericault and Degas.
In Tiger Attacking Horse, for example, Pettus reimagines a well-known painting by Delacroix on the same subject in terms of whirling, energetic strokes of color that have a life of their own quite independent of the animals they depict.
Pony Express runs through Dec. 31 at Galerie Francoise, E.S.F., 2360 W. Joppa Road, Green Spring Station in Lutherville. Call 410-337-2787 or go to galeriefrancoiseesf.com.
During the 1970s in Chicago, a number of black artists came together under the banner of AFRICOBA, or Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a loosely affiliated group that aimed to develop a distinctive visual aesthetic inspired by African-American history and culture.
James Phillips, whose colorful works on paper are on view in Negative Space at New Door Creative gallery, came of age as a member of AFRICOBA. His vibrant, incredibly intricate geometric abstractions are an evolution of his earlier abstract paintings inspired by African textiles and jazz.
Phillips influenced a generation of younger artists through his classes at Howard University in Washington. This is his first solo show in Baltimore, and it's well worth a visit to the lovely renovated space New Door Creative has provided for it.
Negative Space runs through Jan. 6 at New Door Creative, 1601 St. Paul St. Call 410-244-8244.