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Breaking the Surface

Michael Economos' paintings subtly reveal his life and times

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Michael Economos' "Floza" (1978)

Michael Economos: The New York Years Versus the Maryland Years

Through Dec. 19 at MICA's Pinkard Gallery

Don’t let the simple title mislead you: Michael Economos’ The New York Years Versus the Maryland Years is an intensely personal exhibition, but you might not get the entire breadth of that intimacy from the paintings alone. A MICA professor of painting and drawing since 1964, Economos hangs seven “New York” paintings with 11 “Baltimore” paintings (some from a single series) for this small show that charts his evolving creative interests. What they share is his exquisite craftsmanship—he’s got a great eye and hand for figurative realism—and an interesting tension between representational control and gestural expression. Visually alone, Versus offers the revealing opportunity to drink in one artist’s painterly concerns cherry-picked from a roughly 40-year time span. Read the essays in the exhibition’s accompanying brochure—a short introduction from Economos himself and a descriptive appreciation from his friend and co-worker, MICA Professor Emeritus Paul Moscatt—and you get a candid glimpse of the life experiences that informed the artist creating these paintings.

The paintings occupy the ground floor Pinkard Gallery/lobby of MICA’s Bunting Center, which makes it a little too easy to pass them quickly and only catch the superficial ways in which the two eras differ. Judging by painting dates alone, Economos lived in New York City for about 10 years in the early to late 1970s, moving to Baltimore after that. The works reflect their different locales in subject matter and palette: Many of the New York paintings feature some items almost entirely obscured by blades of grass, as if litter tossed into an abandoned city lot, while the Maryland paintings reflect a closeness and familiarity with water: people swimming in crisp blue pools or slightly muddy-looking swimming holes.

The personal biography revealed in Economos’ and Moscatt’s essays lends a narrative context to these first impressions, enough so that it’s worth picking up one of the brochures to read and then making a return visit. Economos writes about wanting to do something different from the New York art world he saw around him while he lived there, and that moving to Maryland and becoming more curious about the Chesapeake Bay led to the purchase of a sailboat and his use of swimmers as a recurring motif. Moscatt discusses his friend’s technique, how relationships affected his interest in the human figure over time, and how his paintings’ tones have subtly changed. These casual, candid accounts provide enough insight into the man behind the paintings to encourage a closer consideration, and a slower inspection of Economos’ work offers an eccentric friction between his ability to depict objects with a high level of photorealistic detail and an almost obsessive desire to distort that competence with expressive painterly emotion.

It’s an attitude that makes the New York and Maryland paintings look much less different than they do at first. In 1973’s “Colt 45 With Grass,” Economos depicts an empty can of the malt liquor lying beneath a dense forest of grass blades. The painting’s perspective is practically that of standing directly above the can looking down at it, but he works on a large canvas—52-by-72-inches—that lends the image a more overbearing impression. The can isn’t merely hidden under the grass; the plant feels to be taking over the composition. Each individual blade is rendered with acute precision, but they sprout with the unruly disregard for order of wild, untamed nature. It creates a rather imposing effect, as if the grass is going to continue growing off the canvas and swallow the gallery wall and anything else in its path. This frenetic overgrowth gives the image of a presumably discarded can a restless, anxious energy.

That obstreperous element creeps into the Maryland paintings as well, also when Economos confronts the natural world. Many of these paintings feature swimmers, in bathing suits or nude, and the dexterity with which Economos can render the human form sometimes gets downright attacked by the flourishes with which he renders water splashing around the body as it hits the water’s surface. In paintings such as 1986’s “Swimmer A” and “Swimmer B,” the sensual, stretched-out body of swimmers in the water is obscured by the rippling, swirling water motions. Submerged parts of the body get distorted by light passing through the liquid. And the water surface itself is rendered almost like an abstracted color field. In “Swimmer A,” a nude woman floats on her back, only a portion of torso poking through the water into the air. But the dimpled surface of the water is a highly furtive array of brush-strokes and shades of blue, lending it the appearance of a lake’s dancing stillness.

In both instances these gesture-like effects can be taken as a realist’s efforts to capture the natural world, but in Economos’ case that feels a bit infelicitous. He appears to have a fondness for the two-way street connecting representation and abstraction. In 1994’s “Invasion,” a nude man holding what looks like a chainsaw with economos scrawled on its side raises a dagger to another kinda/sorta humanoid form who is completely obscured by a grass-like tornado of lines. It’s as if a man is trying to hide in a bush that’s in the process of morphing into an abstract-expressionist shrub.

Even more impressive is 1994’s “Ophelia,” which is easy to mistake for an outright abstraction. The earliest painting in the show is 1965’s “Orpheus,” a non-idiomatic treatment of the Greek myth. Glancing quickly at the mammoth, 8-by-12-foot “Ophelia,” the immediate reaction is to assume it’s another abstracted interpretation of a fictional situation: Many zigzagging brush strokes move from the upper left corner down and to the right across the panel, the palette dark and muddy and the emotional effect a little melancholic. And while the compositions motion directs the eye in a specific direction, eventually the line of sight floats up to the canvas’ upper right-hand corner, where Economos’ seemingly haphazard brushstrokes suggest the form of a woman submerged in a pool, drowned. It’s a sterling instance of abstract vocabulary congealing into a moment of narrative power, and a testament to Economos’ surreptitious gift to pack potent emotions into his disarmingly straightforward work.

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