Raoul Middleman's bold new work recalls a long-gone era

If you've been around Baltimore's art scene at all, you probably know Raoul Middleman's oil paintings: industrial Baltimore landscapes, wry self-portraits, historical scenes, and fleshy women among them. This last topic finds full expression in his intensely lively graphic works on display at C. Grimaldis Gallery.

The Mae West Suite: Graphic Work by Raoul Middleman takes its name from a series of lithographs from 1969. Originally intended as illustrations for Jonathan Williams' collection of poems, The Apocryphal, Oracular Yeah-sayings of Mae West, they served as one of the first instances of Middleman's move away from his early work as something of a pop artist, creating a fleshy substantiality in the austere space between the white lines.

Born in Baltimore in 1935, Middleman was still a young man when he produced the original Mae West lithographs, and so it is somewhat surprising to see how much more vigorous the "Untitled" series of monoprints from this year are. These works, with their loose and colorful lines, are positively bursting with flesh created by using techniques antipodal to those in the earlier series. Here, the flesh is made with a profusion of overlapping colors and colliding lines. These prints focus so intently on the plumpness of women's bodies that if the adjective Rubenesque weren't so common, one would be tempted to replace it with Middlemanesque.

The prints manage not only to convey the breasts, bellies, and vulvas of these women, but also something of their lives. In most of the pictures, a woman sits beside a shadowy, fully clothed (Middle) man in a hat with a cigarette or a cigar. Others show jockeys, horses, and more women. The images feel so alive that they make you want to live in a disorderly, unsafe, and unclean way; they make you want to go out running to the Block to waste your time and money drinking, smoking, and talking with the kind of characters Middleman envisions; they make you want to bet your wad on a tip at the track and lose. Instead, we spent an afternoon with Middleman at his cavernous, overflowing warehouse studio, where he stunned us not only with his vitality, but also with the kind of intelligence that sees Latin grammar in Cezanne's painting. ()


City Paper: Can you talk a little bit about the development that brought you from The Mae West Suite up through these new monoprints?

Raoul Middleman: The painters I like are like [Jean] DuBuffet. I'll never forget, I tried to do that at the time-an akimbo dislocation of gravity in his work-and I never could get it. And I became a pop artist who put volume into it.

Lichtenstein and all those guys were just flat, and I put volume into it. Girls in cars with guys and guys drinking beer, you know, but then I decided to go against that. It was a very structured world by the curators and the dealers. They really pulled a fast one. Not that the work didn't have any merit-it did, but they made it as a big movement they had orchestrated. I decided-if you have an idea of the avant-garde-the challenge was to take on all that post-modernist hooey and make traditional painting the most radical thing you could do. But I'm not really a traditional painter. There's a reckless abandon of expressionistic overflow in my work.

I went out and started painting landscapes one summer and I didn't know any landscape painters and it was the stupidest thing you could do. But I liked it because I couldn't get a graduate-school lingo around it. There was a freedom in that. It was a major switch to me to use perceptual painting it was a way of going.

Then I started doing narrative, which brought the pop kind of icon, the placard in the burlesque sense with the painterly thing I was doing. It brought those things together. Now I'm talking about a 50-year career and trying to make sense of it now, and I'm not sure that I am. To my mind, it was like these two things came together in the narrative. And the portraits. There's a cartoony grotesqueness in my work-I'm an uglifier.

I left college with my degree and was a cowhand in Montana for a couple years; in the high Sierras and California, I was a wrangler; odd jobs in New Orleans. I was interested in the literary aspect of the thing.When I got to New Orleans, I got a license to do portraits in Pirates Alley, but when they got [the portraits], they'd tear them up. And I was just trying to do them straight

There's always been this strain of the grotesque, a lot of things I think are elegant and beautiful but they're not perceived that way-the emphasis on the burlesque and the comical. All along, I've been drawing between painting. I make my own walnut ink. I have books of sketches of this kind of thing. The monoprints are an extension of that. It's an extension of landscape in this Pollock-y continuum, an extension of the jokey, tragic grotesquery and the horse world.

I hung at Pimlico as a kid, the trainers, and working out West. It's that whole world of the race track, the rodeo, the circus, burlesque, the comics, the barkers in front of the great bar establishments on the Block on Baltimore street.

CP: Say more about that. One of the things I'm interested in the monoprints is the way the form and the subject matter come together with this great new vitality.

RM: I always hung out at the Block in early years and [went] to jazz at the [Club] Tijuana on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I'd go to the Block and listen to the sax at the different clubs. And the Piccadilly Club was big for me. There was this great comedian Max Barron, and I liked his name because it meant a king or royalty but also barren or empty. And he would deliver with this cosmic boredom all this incredible stuff, he had this little routine . . . "tender, slender, bender, a multitude of pulchritude" . . . you know, that sort of thing. He was kind of a hero to me and one of the etchings is this guy sitting there with the three Graces, and it is Max Barron.

I went to Europe, got a sabbatical, met my wife, and we came back and got a place on the Block. We stayed there. My first son was born on the Block.

CP: The Block's changed a lot

RM: It used to be everywhere. Now it's squeezed in. There used to be all these places-like [this] pharmacy was a bookie joint, but the cops would all eat there and the judges and the strippers would eat there, and the comics and I'd go there for lunch, and it was cheap because it was a front, and the waitresses had a lot of lip and attitude. It was just wonderful. It was like something out of Damon Runyon. The whole Block had that. I really loved that world. I loved the horse world.

CP: So in doing the monoprints, were you intentionally trying to bring back this world that you remember?

RM: Well, I'd been doing it in drawings and my wife is a printmaker and she said, "Why don't you do it in monoprints?" And this was just between Thanksgiving and Christmas and at first I had trouble and my wife, Ruth Channing, she helped me have confidence in the splurging swaggering bullshit of my own fantasy life and it started to work. It was very exciting. It was like the two things in Greek culture, the geometric Apollonian, an exercise in being and presence, and triangles and circles. . . . And then Dionysian-it's more about the flow and becomingness that forms that Dionysian energy. It's the dialectic Nietzsche talks about between clarity and raucous energy-like Pollock had that energy. In the sense of doing these drawings, there's this idea of freedom and also this kind of despair that comes into it at the same time. The lines aren't in a set pattern but create their own cosmos with the energy of their intentionality.

CP: Psychologically, I guess, there's also that sadness with the burlesque.

RM: Yes. There's a sadness to burlesque. There's this poverty that they instantly transmute it into a sense of decay and richness combined. Because it deals with the decadent side of human nature and lust and love. It's like the rotting wharves. I also like to paint the Baltimore harbor, the parts of the harbor, before it got gentrified, where nature starts to reclaim the structures and gives it this beauty. Rot and decay are some of the tragic inflections that occur in the burlesque sensibility.

CP: Do you feel like since you've gotten older you are more sensitive to that?

RM: I'm more decayed [laughs]. That's humanity. It's not about blissful success in our Hollywood mode. It's our failure that makes us human. The burlesque comedians knew that. You find the poverty of means to create the richness of implication.

The Mae West Suite: Graphic Work by Raoul Middleman is on display at C. Grimaldis gallery through March 23.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy