Raoul Middleman's 50 years of self-portraits are not at all like your stupid selfies

City Paper

Raoul Middleman contains multitudes and he revels in the frailty of flesh. There is no more Whitman-esque artist in Baltimore and his current show, annoyingly called “Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman’s Self Portraits,” at MICA’s Meyerhoff Gallery in the Fox Building through March 14 sings the body electric, winning over the viewer by a sheer force of will and show of force.

When you walk in you are confronted by a towering wall of well-over-30 self-portraits—I lost count—going all the way up to the ceiling. We see Middleman bearded and bare-faced, with black hair and gray, smoking, sneering, and wearing clown hats. Then you go around the bend and there are more. More. And more. Walls and walls of Middleman, his jowls always fleshy, his cheeks hanging like the pendulous breasts of the strippers he displayed in his last Baltimore show “The Mae West Suite” (as well as in a few of these paintings, which show the artist with naked, large-breasted women, as in one of the large paintings that greets you upon entering, featuring Middleman, bearded in a white shirt and hat so that he looks almost like a baker, standing in the studio beside one fleshy blonde woman with ponderous pink nipples and a very-well-endowed naked black man). 

Middleman is the greatest painter of bulbous flesh that Baltimore has—and has probably ever had. He is the perfect antidote to the Photoshop age of clean lines and smooth tones, which is why it is so annoying that we have to try to make this monument to humanity, time, and yes, ego, and equate it with our idiotic coinage of our digital phenomenon. There is nothing digital about this show at all; it is fiercely and fearlessly analogue, accruing meaning, like scars, over time.

In many ways, this show is about time and about self. Samuel Beckett said Proust’s characters are monstrous because they occupy so little space and so much time. Seeing these hundreds of self-portraits makes this monstrosity real, while also invoking, somehow, the horror of “Being John Malkovich,” where everyone the actor sees looks just like him.

But part of what is fascinating about Middleman’s show is that one is able to see how little and how much he is his  own self and what that might mean. If the show is considered as a whole, as a single work, its subject is permanence within change, and its mission an almost Cartesian search for self.

Almost, for, unlike Descartes, Middleman offers no cogito, no pure thinking self, only our fleshy manifold of creases and the incremental creep of our failures. But there is also something in the eyes, caught in each case, looking at themselves. They are full of the same cantankerous joy one finds in Middleman’s rapidly shifting speech, full of enthusiasm and vigor. But there is also, in these renderings of his own eyes, a deep, infinite sadness. You miss it if you look at one of these massive walls—such a monumental task must be full of some Zorba-esque joy—but when you look closely at the eyes of one isolated picture, any of them really, you see that Middleman actually looks something like Mandy Patinkin playing the infinitely sad and resigned character Saul Berenson on the television show “Homeland.” These are Dostoevskian eyes.

This is another reason why the title of the show “Selfies” is so goddamn annoying. Even if you have to take the five seconds to affix your phone to a stick, a selfie is the instantaneous, flattened capturing of a fleeting moment. A self-portrait is something much different and each of these paintings show more about Middleman as artist than as subject.

He must stare into his own eyes, at his own flab, at the frailty of his flesh, and contemplate mortality and the passage of time as time passes. Most of these are oil paintings. They require the artist’s hand and the artist’s eye. They are an expression of his vision. To paraphrase David Hockney, selfies are all right if you want to see your self as a paralyzed cyclops might see you for a fraction of a second.

It is not only that, taken as a whole, 50 years separate the earliest of these paintings from the last, but that each of the hundreds of paintings are created in time. Painting is a temporal medium as much as a spatial one, only we didn’t know it until instantaneous image-making became possible. 

This is a hard show to write about, because none of the works have titles and there is no comprehensive list. It almost forces you to take in the show as a whole, single, massive work, but it also pays to pretend for a moment that it is a smaller, less-ambitious show, and to take in the details of individual paintings and look at the skill of the artist as he contemplates himself.

This overhwhelming plenitude hits at the essential philosophical point of the show. When we look back over our lives, we are always torn between the fragmentary, fleeting, disconnnected moment and the collective whole. In giving us these paintings, Middleman offers us a way to navigate looking at ourselves.

When I was at the show, I overheard two young art students talking about vanity. And there is vanity in these pictures, but not the vanity they are thinking of, the celebrity photos and the selfies and the egotistical focus on the self. Rather this is the Old Testament vanity of the preacher, where one generation passeth and another ariseth and yet the world abideth forever. This show is a memento mori,  recognizing that, though all is vanity, we must, while we can, endure, as miniscule monsters caught in the onslaught of time, saying, again with Beckett, I can’t go on. I must go on.  

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