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Old Guard

C. Grimaldis highlights some of Maryland’s biggest names in art

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“Grazie Rosetti,” by Grace Hartigan

Summer 2012

On display at C. Grimaldis through Aug. 25. For more information, visit

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Grace Hartigan, John Waters, Raoul Middleman, John Ruppert, Anthony Caro, Chul Hyun Ahn, and Costas Varotsos—these are big established names, the kinds of artists who have a piece in the permanent collection at the Met, have work exhibited in 27 different shows in a single year, or are asked if their work might provide a backdrop for a Kevin Spacey political drama. These artists are also all represented in the C. Grimaldis Gallery, which has been a force in the city since 1977. In that time, a more independent gallery scene has sprung up, so Summer 2012—a show of some of the best work and biggest names represented by the gallery—provides a perfect opportunity to assess just where the old guard stands in relation to the city’s changing art scene.

The works displayed are either similar or related to the works that many of the younger generation have grown up looking at. In addition to being in the collections of esteemed museums and galleries, these artists’ works commonly grace campuses and sculpture gardens, forcing us to notice how Ruppert, Caro, and Varotsos’ sculptures seem a bit out of place in white-walled galleries.

Hartigan’s “Grazie Rosetti” (1995), while loud and busy, feels comforting and maternal. Layers of loose black strokes make out women’s faces, gesturing hands, and flowers. Combined with bright pink, red, green, and yellow, all dripping down the canvas, an intriguing pattern is formed. Described in 1958 by Life as “the most celebrated of the young American women painters,” the late Hartigan served as the chair of the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA from 1965-2008, and left more than $1 million in paintings to MICA and Maryland Art Place.

Across the room from “Grazie Rosetti” hang four Middleman ink drawings. Middleman’s loose contours feature suggestively sultry female nudes with male faces and figures in the background. Are the men voyeurs? Lovers? Pimps? The titles reveal themes: “Hubba Hubba” (2006), “Lucky Letch” (2006), “Beauty and the Best” (2006), and “Piggy Back” (2006). Unlike the other dark-brown walnut ink contours, “Beauty and the Best” makes use of pink, yellow, and light-brown tones, giving the image more depth. Altogether, the result is the suggestion of a randy mood from a genuinely expressive hand.

To the left are two works by John Waters, a filmmaker so famously connected to the city that his name alone could draw people to the gallery. Both images consist of multiple stills of Waters’ drag-queen muse, Divine. “Shoplifter” (2006), the leftmost still, gives us the title, as in a film, with Divine looking at the camera in front of what might be a rack of clothing, reaching into her purse, and looking down. “Alley Cat” (2003) features seven stills of Divine scurrying down an alley, shiftily glancing backwards. The images are blurry and look almost like footage from a security camera. The pieces suggest nostalgia for Waters’ own past and don’t seem especially noteworthy on the gallery wall or in the filmmaker’s venerable career.

On a nearby pedestal we find “Turret” (2011), by Anthony Caro. The brass and bronze sculpture is compact and appears weighed-down but somehow also dynamic. Caro’s “Table Piece CCCXIX - Gothic” (1976-1977) feels much more exciting. Its dark, lengthy pieces lay across a wooden table. The rigid, rusted steel looks delicate and organic, like fronds on a plant or limbs on a praying mantis. While “Turret” could easily be transported to the corner of one’s coffee table, “Table Piece” would take over a dining surface, forcing its owners to eat elsewhere.

Across from Caro’s work are a few dazzling works by Korean light artist Chul Hyun Ahn. “Tunnel V, After Dan Flavin” (2011), shown at the gallery last year, is a square concrete shell that appears to be a tunnel going through the floor of the gallery. By placing mirrors and fluorescent lights in the box just right, Ahn aligned the reflections to continuously bounce off one another, each becoming successively darker and greener. The two fluorescent tubes, placed perpendicular to one another and overlapping, certainly recall Dan Flavin, but the image differs in the economy of the (light) line provided by the illusion. “Visual Echo Experiment” (2011) does the same, but does so with soft square panels of colored light, making the illusion of nine tunnels going into the gallery wall. It is easy to see how Ahn’s works would make a perfect backdrop for a show called House of Cards (with Spacey), and the gallery says the show’s producers are planning to shoot there in the coming days.

Costas Varotsos’ “Gate” (2009) is also worth mentioning. It stands tall in the front window of the gallery. A dark frame filled with horizontal layers of glass creates a field of layered light patterns. It is tempting to run your finger down the texture created by the uneven edge of the stacked glass pieces. Perhaps if the piece were outside, as featured in previous installation shots, the viewers would feel more welcome to touch. If they did, would they discover that the surface was dangerously sharp?

While the show represents the lengthy careers of a wide range of established artists, the pieces don’t work together to convey a common message. The lack of message doesn’t make the show bad, but if there was a common thread, it may be more engaging to the viewer.

For a show named Summer 2012, it is a bit surprising that some works date as far back as the 1970s. There is nothing shockingly new about the works, and maybe they wasn’t meant to be. But with the roster of new galleries growing every year and the BMA’s new contemporary wing planning to show the works of younger artists such as Jimmy Joe Roche and Gaia, it is valid to wonder how the staid old galleries like C. Grimaldis will approach the future. Will they consider the works of local artists with similar, yet more daring sensibilities, like Benjamin Kelley and David Armacost? One thing this show makes clear: Even if they choose to stay fairly separate from Baltimore’s avant-garde scene, they have surely helped inform it.

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