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In the Raw
Raoul Middleman's Subject Matter Has Changed Over The Years, But Not His Acute Eye For Tension
I ALWAYS FEEL LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME: Raoul Middleman's "Guardians of the Studio."

I ALWAYS FEEL LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME: Raoul Middleman's "Guardians of the Studio."

Raoul Middleman: Pop to Plein-Air

Raoul Middleman appears to enjoy the polemics of desire and aversion. In his semiretrospective at C. Grimaldis Gallery, you can get a glimmer of the evolving relationship Middleman has with the psychic intrigues of vice and virtue. As his surname suggests, the aesthetic ingredients of his paintings generally intertwine the two, much as life does. Gluttony is most ruthless in the earliest work in the show. "Midnight Snack" (1965) is a monumental and garish low-art image, long in tooth and nail. A distinctly period piece, it is in lockstep with the other fast-food guys of the era--Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, and Wayne Thiebaud. Middleman's cellulite-faced, pajama-clad fellow lustily stuffing down his ham and cheese shares--perhaps toasts--his foaming beer to such midcentury masters in the foreground. Middleman's background is at this point a blank white surface--but that would ultimately dissipate by the next period. "Snack"'s lusty, saturated palette would, however, remain, becoming more tangled in ambiguity and shadow.

Precisely when Middleman's approach to paint changed is not explained by the 41 works in the show, but at some point between '65 and 1997's "The Prodigal Son," the artist's background became jammed with wicked indulgences, temptations, impasto paint, and mottled atmospheric conditions. The horned protagonist of "Prodigal" and his apparently sated paramour speed forward from the churning smog of pigment that exposes a racially charged narrative. Both background approaches propose time disorientation, but the latter is a larder for much more emotional content and that is where Middleman excels.

Was it a 2006 trip to Italy that provided such a revelation for this painter? The many oil-on-canvas landscapes with this date suggest a formative event where politics and trends become less of a concern than the sensuous and metaphoric largess of nature. A dark Courbet-esque pleasure invigorates these landscapes. But what is most powerful in these paintings is not the land itself--which appears to represent desire, as Courbet's work did for those who long for such remote, unbothered places--but it's in Middleman's skies where trouble is usually most agitated and stirring. These skies are nature's unmitigated wild revenge above her promised land: tornadoes and tidal waves of air masses. More than thrilling, they are often hostile.

The two fish still-lifes in the show carry the same instinctual edge. As "vanitas" paintings they convey a morbid quality that substitutes, if only by context, Middleman's previous indications of gingival intemperance in place of a refined culinary one. "Fish and Copper Pot" (2007) illustrates a cornucopia of fish and lemons spilling from an overturned pot. The excessive spillage of rendered fish carcasses and split lemons could intellectually never fit back in this pot, never mind any vanishing-point perspective, but that is for the best for the work itself. It is the affliction of overkill that undercuts a traditional scene's association of opulence to give it a silent, twisting, gut-feeling sharpness. These paintings are nonetheless raw, pungent, and beautiful.

A few of Middleman's figurative drawings, along with some gentler watercolor landscapes, are included in the presentation, providing a mental bench to rest on before continuing. The drawings are quick, intuitive, and ventilated on their white ground, but also energetic and vigorous. They serve to map Middleman's personal technique, which, bared to the bone as it is in these drawings, is like a nighttime still of rushing traffic. But no longer a midnight snack, even the drawings are substantial and satisfying enough to digest throughout the long night.



Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper