Sunday, March 13th, 2011

“Like Renoir, he doesn’t only paint with his brush”: Raoul Middleman’s Baltimore Babes

This is the catalogue essay for Raoul Middleman’s current exhibition at Kouros Gallery by artcritical Editor David Cohen

March 4 to April 2, 2011
23 East 73rd Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues
New York City, (212) 288-5888

A Preface for Puritans

Raoul Middleman, May, 1989.  Oil on board, 48 x 36 inches.  Courtesy of Kouros Gallery
Raoul Middleman, May, 1989. Oil on board, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of Kouros Gallery

It will come as little surprise to anyone acquainted with the paintings of Raoul Middleman that earlier in his career he had writing aspirations, too — and not just aspirations, for they were acted upon in raucous short stories that often delved into the steamier side of Baltimore. This is the city where he grew up, taught for many years at the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art, and continues to make his home. But it is also, in his writings and paintings alike, a city of the imagination, transported beyond its present bricks and mortar to the planet of Joyce’s Dublin and Durrell’s Alexandria, Atget’s Paris and Kirchner’s Berlin. These are cities mapped by longings not landmarks. For many years he has kept a studio of mythic magni- tude in the neighborhood of the famed Copycat building, amidst the raw, mean streets that serve as location for The Wire.

Middleman is at once a supremely painterly painter and a writerly painter. His illustrious, fecund career provides a service to aesthetics by dispelling the prissy formalist notion that somehow to tell a story in paint, to illustrate a type, to animate a com- position with scenario, is incompatible with whatever it is that provides visual art with its essence. Middleman’s vital, brimful- of-life riposte to such a reductive way of thinking reconnects narrative painting to centuries of endeavor in countless genres, many of which latter he himself has attacked in his greed for imagery. In virtually any Middleman painting, an event has just happened and there is more to come. Subjects are never passive. The universe is in flux.

There is something to remind us of Balzac in Middleman’s mammoth scope and prolific output. His monumental narrative paintings have taken on epoch-defining moments like Custer’s last stand or whimsical themes that marry music lore and Americana with titles like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia, or The Prodigal Son”. He retells classical myths (“The Calumny of Apelles”) in a raucous, vernacular present tense that fuses the once discrete categories of allegory and low life. Even when he paints a modestly observed domestic set up the elements in it are restless. Supposedly dead fish glisten and writhe, literalizing the name of the genre: still life.

Raoul Middleman, Heather, 2000. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 inches.  Courtesy of Kouros Gallery
Raoul Middleman, Heather, 2000. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 inches. Courtesy of Kouros Gallery

And then there are the Baltimore Babes: Madge spilling out of her motorcycle jacket; Linda the Valkyrie; Stephanie, more naked within her negligee than she would be without; booted Colleen; defiant Tracey; demure Heather; eager Anthea. Boy, this is one seriously politically incorrect exhibition. Here is the work of a straight male of a certain age taking irony-free delight in the portrayal of alluring women. Libido is manifest in every brushstroke. Like Renoir, he doesn’t only paint with his brush. Like Rodin’s Balzac, there is more than a clenched fist in his dressing gown.

If only the artist were a few years younger and a few brushstrokes more intentionally “bad”, the doting objectification would be “transgressive” rather than merely a tad louche. The show title is playful with the sitters’ status, as are the forename-only names given to individual works. From a cold, one line description (on Twitter perhaps) they could be imagined, albeit rather luxuriously executed and extravagantly scaled, as calling cards for professional ladies of a kind to be found in a very large and highly cultured telephone kiosk, if there were still such things in the world.

But then again, maybe not, for any lasciviousness in these pictures is concentrated in the paint handling, not on poses. These are not people selling themselves or leading anyone on. The women in this group span generations, occupations, social sta- tions, ethnicities and sartorial preferences. They are clothed less for modesty’s sake than for added drama. Sure, they have in common a propensity to arouse. But not – once we begin to study what the painter has given us of their personalities – a vocation to do so.

Another association, suggested by the exoticism of some of the costumes, and recalling Middleman’s early, unpublished short story, “Richard the Doorman,” is the burlesque of Baltimore’s legendary maritime pleasure dome, the “block.” But even the term “artiste” defies the poise and introspection of these sitters. What is common between them is the libidinal reverence paid their presence by the artist, not a mutual attitude or agenda on the part of the women themselves.

And anyway, compelling though these personal presences are, and despite the names being of the actual women who sat for these works, who include the artist’s son’s fiancé, personal friends, professional models and fellow artists, these are not por- traits per se. At least, they are no more so than, say, Rembrandt’s paintings of Bathsheba or a young monk are portraits when we recognize Hendrickje Stoffels or Titus as their sitters. As in all Middlemans, the observed is swept up into the imagined.

Raoul Middleman, Linda, 2007. Oil on canvas, 80 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Kouros Gallery
Raoul Middleman, Linda, 2007. Oil on canvas, 80 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Kouros Gallery

Willem de Kooning’s maxim that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented is so delightful and suggestive an apercu that it seems churlish to question its validity. In fact, a whole exhibition was presented on its premise at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC a couple of years ago, “Paint as Flesh,” and Middleman, with his masterful evocations of flesh, could have settled nicely into the ranks of the realist mavericks, first generation AbEx’ers, denizens of the School of London and young “bad” painters gathered there. Middleman belongs, in fact, to a strain of American realism that ranks Reginald Marsh, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Cadmus and Middleman’s friend and contemporary Paul Georges among its luminaries, and the late Carl Plansky as a younger peer. Middleman’s Gloria, for instance, feels squeezed out of her canvas in a way that re- calls Benton in turn recalling El Greco. But then, Middleman’s affinities with European expressive realism run deep. He clearly channels the work of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Lovis Corinth.

De Kooning’s assertion needs to be challenged, however, not, literally, from a historical perspective, to probe the origins of this medium, so much as to say, is it really skin that so particularly requires the dexterity and malleability of oil paint? Put another way: it would be axiomatic to say that flesh is the reason clothing was invented, to keep flesh warm, out of the harmful rays of the sun, and of the vision of respectable citizens and impressionable youths. But the genius of fashion is to persuade us that clothes are the reason that flesh and bone were invented; that the second skins of fur and fabric and stretched materials layer limbs with greater allure as well as signifying all manner of meanings and values. Oil paint comes into its own in the depiction of all kinds of surfaces, and the gooey swish of mixed colors and tones to suggest, say, light on the stretch of spandex in May’s stockings (May, 1989) is a sexier amalgam of the properties of medium and message than exposed skin – although the play of light on May’s forehead and arms is equally masterful. There is as much relish in the painterly evocation of the contour and surface of May’s corset as there would be for the flesh it constrains. (From the tautness of skin over the sitter’s shoulder bone and across her brow it seems that a corset is a superfluous decoration anyway on so lithe a figure as May’s.) The point here is that Middleman lusts to describe not to possess. The “babes” send us back to the woods where we find that Middleman’s penetrations of the Delaware River, as indeed of the dead fish that might have come from it, have as much “lust for life” as the paintings of the beauties that visit his studio.

Middleman’s art is comprised of observation and imagination in equal measure. He is truly an heir of Rembrandt in that flight of fantasy takes off from earthy ground. True to his name, he opts for the middle way. Having said that his “babes” are narra- tives not portraits, therefore, is only half true. When a woman plays a role for Middleman she is still herself. Middleman is like a demonic director who sucks the souls from his performers to get a fully living picture, to flesh out the abstraction of a literary character with the actuality of its enactor. Even if Middleman’s intention was to evoke the epitome of a femme fatale, when painting Tracey with such harsh chiaroscuro that her hairline seems as carved as the fissures in her purple slip, Tracey remains Tracey in the way Medea remains (or better, retains) Maria Callas, or Vivian Sternwood does Lauren Bacall.

For all his addiction to drama, allegory and type, Middleman is incapable of stereotype because he relies on actual human presence to evoke humanity, and works with such empathy that humanity cannot be denied. And so it is with all the “babes”: they are as fully individuated as anyone who presumes to regard them. Linda is her own Valkyrie, not Wagner’s, or Middle- man’s, or yours, or (hopelessly as I want her to be) mine.

Raoul Middleman, Gloria, 1996.  Oil on canvas, 60 x 36 inches.  Courtesy of Kouros Gallery
click to enlarge