What do Josephine Baker, Amelie Matisse and Lili Marlene have in common? Aside from their aura of European sophistication and glamour, they're all featured subjects in New Paintings, a lively exhibition of recent work by Baltimore master Grace Hartigan at C. Grimaldis Gallery.
Over the years, Hartigan has repeatedly returned for inspiration to famous women from history, legend and the history of art. She was a leading member of the New York School of Abstract-Expressionist painters during the 1950s, and her subsequent work remains an inventive mix of delightful human forms and pure abstraction.
Her subjects include a multicultural compendium of characters from Arthurian legend, Shakespearean drama, grand opera and ballet, Japanese woodblock prints, Orientalist painting and old-master portraits, all rendered in her signature style that recalls the spontaneous, airy transparency of watercolor drawings.
In Josephine Baker, for example, the lithe-limbed dancer who, in the Paris of the 1920s, became the first African-American woman to win international stardom, appears as a theatrically costumed Venus in the notoriously skimpy banana peel-and-bead skirt that prompted novelist Ernest Hemingway to call her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
Yet the picture's surface gaiety is subtly contradicted by Hartigan's expressive use of emotion-laden drips and layered forms, which suggest a deluge of tears enveloping Baker's larger-than-life persona.
Thus does the painting transform itself into an arresting visual metaphor for both the heartbreak and triumph of Baker's life and career - and, perhaps, of Hartigan's as well.
The show also includes a selection of Hartigan's masterful watercolors and three startling drawings that, amazingly for an artist entering her ninth decade, represent Hartigan's only public foray into the pastel medium.
New Paintings runs through Jan. 5 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080 or go to cgrimaldisgallery.com.
Salame at Goya
Amber River, the centerpiece of painter Soledad Salame's ambitious exhibition at Goya Contemporary, depicts a section of the Amazon River near Angel Falls in the Venezuelan rain forest, where the waters are inexorably creeping higher each year, threatening communities along its banks.
The motif of rising water recurs throughout this show, whose mixed-media landscape paintings, prints and drawings all refer in one way or another to the long-term consequences of global warming and, by inference, to the fragility of an ecosystem threatened by unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases.
Salame bases many of her compositions on aerial maps and satellite photographs, as if to emphasize the global nature of the environmental challenge that now confronts humanity.
But if that's all there were, the artist could get her message across just as well in a poster or political tract. Salame's art has always been based not just on a clear moral idea but also on a surpassingly beautiful vision of the natural world's monumental grandeur, which reduces our private human concerns to insignificance.
She is a great postmodern romantic whose passionate engagement with art is inextricably linked to a practical concern for preserving an environment in which life is both possible and worth living.
The Earth is reshaping itself under our feet, partly as a result of human activity, yet we seem as oblivious to the devastating changes in store for our species as we are to the collective responsibility we share for wise stewardship of the planet. Salame's art is both a celebration of nature's wild beauty and a call to action on its behalf.
A companion show of photographs by Evelyn Hofer in the rear gallery presents empathetic images of people and places in 1960s-era Washington.
Soledad Salame and Evelyn Hofer run through Jan. 26 at Goya Contemporary, 3000 Chestnut Ave., Suite 214. Call 410-366-2001 or go to goyacontemporary.com.